Vulcan Centaur – Peregrine One: Where No Man Has Gone Before

The debut of ULA's new vehicle Vulcan Centaur, carrying the small private lander of Astrobotic Technologies Peregrine One, marks a new era in space exploration

On Jan. 8, 2024, a new era began for U.S. heavy launchers with the debut of United Launch Alliance’s new vehicle, Vulcan Centaur, and the Peregrine One mission.

From Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at 07:18 UTC, a Vulcan Centaur VC2 took off, carrying in the test flight a precious, significant, and ambitious load: the small private lander of Astrobotic Technologies called Peregrine One. The probe is set to land on the Moon, around Jan. 23, 2024, in the Sinus Viscositatis region.


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An all-American launcher

The Vulcan launch system is the completion of a process, begun in 2006 with the establishment of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) consortium formed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for the creation of a completely US modular launch system capable of serving all launch needs, from small payloads in low orbit to interplanetary trajectories.

The need is to modernize the fleet of launchers in use in the United States by the government administration, mainly made up of Boeing Deltas and Lockheed Martin Atlases.

In particular, the Atlas-V suffers the consequences of the end of supplies of the Russian-made RD-180 engines, following the sanctions imposed during the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.

The modular system design includes, at the first stage, an engine block made up of two staged combustion Methalox (liquid methane and oxygen) fueled BE-4s, built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. In the future, ULA aims to recover the engines separately from the first-stage tank, through a re-entry system consisting of an inflatable heat shield. The goal is to quickly refurbish these recovered engines, with an estimated saving of 60% compared to the expected cost for the complete reconditioning of an engine-tank system.

Depending on the type of mission, the first stage will be able to attach from zero to six solid fuel boosters (SRBs) produced by the Aerojet company.

The launcher is completed with the second stage consisting of the tested Centaur engine block, a project dating back to the 1960s, with the RL-10 liquid hydrogen and oxygen engines.

The Vulcan-Centaur scheme. Credits: ULA
The Vulcan-Centaur scheme. Credits: ULA

In the future, it is planned that the Centaur will be replaced by a new second stage, called ACES (Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage).

Always driven by the reliable RL-10, it will see an innovative gas recovery system inside the tank which will allow it to be positioned in parking orbits and reactivated after some time for any use of space traction, without the need to take on additional tanks and hypergolic fuel thrusters.

Depending on the configuration adopted, the capacity to carry loads into low orbit (LEO) is 10,800, 19,000, 24,600, and 27,200kg respectively in the VC0, VC2, VC4, and VC6 versions, where the number indicates the quantity of boosters placed alongside the first stage.


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Peregrine: The lunar postman

The mission of the small private lunar lander Peregrine destined to land on the moon on Jan. 23, 2024, in the Sinus Viscositatis, in the Mons Gruithuisen Gamma area, is singular and ambitious.

Developed by Astrobotic Technology as part of the tender announced by NASA for the CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) program, it is nothing more than a lunar postman.

Able to deliver loads up to a maximum of 256 kg to the Moon, it will be used to transport all the equipment, supplies, and various kinds of goods necessary for carrying out a long-term mission on the surface of our natural satellite, whether automatic or crewed.

Peregrine One atop the Vulcan Centaur launcher during ground assembly. Credits: ULA
Peregrine One atop the Vulcan Centaur launcher during ground assembly. Credits: ULA

The lander, a simple aluminum alloy structure with a mass of 1,283 kg, has five hypergolic fuel thrusters capable of a maximum thrust of 667 N. The solar panels provide the 480W necessary for its operation. At the same time, for the first mission, no radioisotope (RTG) energy source is necessary for the lander’s survival during the 14 days of lunar night.

It will be able to communicate with the Earth via X-band transmitters while a 2.4 Ghz WI-FI modem is installed for communication with landers and structures on the lunar surface.


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The cargo of the first mission

For the debut mission, the 90 kg payload was composed of various scientific instruments.

  • LETS (Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer), a device for measuring radiation on the surface for subsequent manned missions;
  • NIRVSS (Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System), a near-infrared spectrometer designed to measure surface and subsurface humidity, as well as CO2 and methane content on the lunar surface. It will also map the surface morphology and temperature:
  • PITMS (Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer), a mass spectrometer designed to study the lunar exosphere;
  • NSS (Neutron Spectrometer System): a neutron spectrometer designed to search for hydrogen in the surrounding regolith;
  • LRA (Laser Retro-Reflector Array): eight reflectors arranged on a spherical cap, with the help of which it is possible to determine the exact position of the lander from a lunar orbit;
  • NDL (Navigation Doppler Lidar): a high-precision lidar rangefinder and detector for descent to the lunar surface.
Peregrine One Lunar lander during ground tests. Credits: ULA/Astrobotic
Peregrine One Lunar lander during ground tests. Credits: ULA/Astrobotic

Furthermore, other loads of various kinds such as:

  • TRN (Terrain Relative Navigation) by Astrobotic Technology: a sensor intended to allow landings on celestial bodies with an accuracy of less than 100 meters.
  • COLMENA of the Agencia Espacial Mexicana: 5 small lunar rovers, each 12 cm in diameter.
  • Lunar Dream Capsule from the Japanese company Astroscale: a container with messages from children worldwide.
  • Lunar Bitcoin: a Bitcoin model from the Seychelles-based company Bitmex.
  • Ash containers from the space funeral companies Elysium Space and Celestis.

Celestis Enterprise Mission

The most poetic and poignant part of this first mission will be carried out by the second stage Centaur.

Once Peregrine One has been released towards its descent trajectory towards the lunar surface, Centaur will be reignited for the third time and placed on a heliocentric trajectory which will lead it to orbit for a very long time around our Sun with a very elliptical orbit capable of crossing the orbital planes of planets from Mercury to Jupiter.

Inside a special rocket-shaped container, called Vulcan positioned in the Centaur, human ashes and genetic material of Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek television saga, and the popular actors who played the roles of the series: James Doohan, who played the role of Montgomery Scott, DeForrest Kelley, who played Doctor Leonard McCoy, Nichelle Nichols, who played the role of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura.

Artistic impression of the Centaut journey around the Sun during the Celestis Enterprise mission. Credit: ULA
Artistic impression of the Centaut journey around the Sun during the Celestis Enterprise mission. Credit: ULA

Together with their genetic material, as well as that of Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, and their son Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, DNA samples from Douglas Trumbull, author of the special effects of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece: “2001 A Space Odyssey”.

For the remains of people who pushed generations to dream of flying into space, a journey where no man has gone before.


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Roberto Paradiso

Roberto Paradiso

Banker with a passion for cosmonautics, he tells in his blog, "Le storie di Kosmonautika" and in the book "Noi abbiamo usato le matite!" the history and stories of the Soviet and Russian space program and the people who made it.

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