ULA aims to launch Astrobotic lunar lander on Christmas Eve

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic’s first lunar lander is set to take off on United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket on Christmas Eve, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said.

Bruno told the audience at the CNBC Technology Executive Council Summit that the rocket company is targeting between December 24 and December 26 for the first-ever Vulcan launch. “The reason it’s Christmas Eve is because of science — orbital mechanics,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno said.

The rocket will carry Astrobotic’s Peregrine robotic lander and a hosted payload from Celestis, a company that partners with launch companies to send small portions of cremated remains to space as a memorial service. ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has a backup window in January should the rocket fail to take off in December.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine is launching as part of a $79.5 million NASA contract awarded in 2019 under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. The lander, which is a little over six feet tall and eight feet wide, with a 120-kilogram payload capacity, will deliver scientific payloads to the northern part of the moon on behalf of the space agency.

While the mission date seems festive, its due in part to Astrobotic’s mission requirements, Bruno said. “We’re going to a part of the moon where they need very carefully controlled lighting conditions and they also have to stay in radio communication with the Deep Space Network,” he explained. “When you put the two together, we get just a few days every month.”

The mission is a long time coming: Astrobotic first announced that it had chosen ULA to launch the lander in 2019; at the time, the two companies said the launch would take place in 2021.

But numerous technical delays to Vulcan — including an incident this March where an upper stage exploded during testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama — have pushed the timeline back. The flight was further delayed when another explosion occurred during rocket engine testing of the BE-4 engines, which are being developed by Blue Origin. Even before December, ULA still has work to do: Bruno told CNBC that the company is currently qualifying the Vulcan upper stage, work that should be complete in November.

This first mission, called Certification-1, is one of two certification flights ULA will need to nail in order to meet the Space Force’s requirements.

The mission will take off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. ULA is hoping to rapidly up the launch cadence of Vulcan, with the company targeting one launch every two weeks by mid-2025. Part of that demand will come from government, but ULA is also seeing demand from commercial customers: ULA won a huge contract from Amazon in 2022 to launch a portion of its massive Kuiper satellite internet mega-constellation, though the price of the launch contract has not been disclosed.