Sign up for CNN's Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific breakthroughs and more.
A tall new rocket took off, carrying the first commercial lander to touch the moon — and the first lunar landing mission launched from the United States since 1972.
The Vulcan Centaur rocket, built by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, blasted into life at 2:18 a.m. Monday at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The launch vehicle soared into space for about an hour, spent its fuel, and then lifted off from Earth's gravitational pull, sending the lunar lander, Peregrine, to the moon.
Just after 3 a.m., the Peregrine spacecraft separated from the rocket and began its slow journey to the lunar surface. If all goes according to plan, the moon landing is likely on February 23.
03:10 – Source: CNN
We went to the moon decades ago. Why do we go back?
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology developed the Peregrine lander — named after the world's fastest-flying falcon — under contract with NASA.
“It's been a dream … for 16 years we've been pushing for this moment today,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said during a webcast of the release. “Along the way, we had a lot of tough challenges to overcome and a lot of people doubted us along the way. But our team and those who supported us believed in the mission and they created this beautiful moment that we see today.
The space agency paid Astrobotic $108 million to build Peregrine and fly NASA science experiments to the lunar surface.
But the space agency is just one of many customers for this mission.
Five of the 20 payloads Peregrine will carry to the moon are NASA science instruments. The other 15 are from a range of clients.
Some are additional scientific payloads from countries like Mexico, while others include robotics experiments by a private UK-based company and trinkets or memorabilia put together by German shipping giant DHL.
Peregrine transports human remains on behalf of two commercial space burial companies – Elysium Space and Celestis – which has sparked protests. Navajo Nation, the largest group of Native Americans in the United States. The group argues that allowing remains to touch the lunar surface is an affront to many indigenous cultures that consider the moon sacred. According to the company's website, Celestis offers to carry ash to the moon for more than $10,000.
The five NASA-sponsored probes include two instruments to monitor the radiation environment, “and we're better prepared to send a crew back to the Moon,” said Paul Niles, program scientist for NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Peregrine offered the funds during a Thursday news conference. Other instruments will probe the makeup of the lunar soil, looking for water and hydroxyl Molecules. NASA will also study the Moon's thin atmosphere.
Once on the moon's surface, Peregrine is expected to operate for up to 10 days before its landing site is plunged into darkness — too cold to navigate.
The Vulcan Centaur rocket, packed separately from the Peregrine lander, contained another payload from the space burial company Celestis.
Named Enterprise Flight, the object contained 265 capsules containing human remains and former US presidents John F. There are DNA samples from Kennedy, George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.
Remnants include “the creator and many of the original film's cast members Star Trek TV series, as well as Apollo-era astronauts, people from all walks of life, interests and professions,” according to the company's website.
The Enterprise flight payload heads into deep space, where it will spend eternity orbiting the Sun.
The excitement of the upcoming lunar landing effort aside, the launch of ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket was an event of its own.
The rocket has been one of the most anticipated new vehicles to fly in years. If the rocket's mission is successful, it could be a game changer for ULA and the broader launch industry.
ULA was created in 2006 in response to the US military's need to operate both Boeing's Delta and Lockheed Martin's Atlas rockets. But the launch industry looks very different today than it did nearly two decades ago, while SpaceX has emerged as a dominant force, undercutting ULA prices.
ULA and its CEO, Tori Bruno, envision the Vulcan Centaur as a replacement for its Atlas and Delta rockets. According to Bruno, the Vulcan Centaur has already deployed about 70 missions.
ULA has a pristine launch record with virtually no failed missions. The Vulcan Centaur builds on the success of ULA's Atlas rockets by using essentially the same upper stage — the part of the rocket that propels the spacecraft into space.
But a major change was made to the rocket's first stage, the lower part that delivers the initial burst of power from the launch pad.
The Vulcan Centaur is powered by two side boosters and two American-made rocket engines — developed by Jeff Bezos-backed company Blue Origin — at the base of its first-stage booster, replacing the Russian-made engines that power Atlas rockets. As tensions between the U.S. and Russia have escalated in recent years, ULA's reliance on Russian engines has become politically unpopular.
The launch of the Vulcan Centaur has already been delayed by several years, although it is common for companies in the space industry to blow past deadlines.
ULA faced long delays for Blue Origin's new engines. And a Vulcan Centaur upper stage was inadvertently destroyed during a test stand last year.
Despite those setbacks, Bruno said in November that Vulcan Centaur's development was “one of the most orderly and well-executed development projects I've worked on in my long career in space.”
Within minutes of liftoff, the rocket appeared to be operating as planned.