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Vulcan launch: Why is NASA going back to the moon?



NASA’s first mission to the moon’s surface since the Apollo missions in the 1970s has begun with the launch today of a new Vulcan rocket carrying a robotic lander with seven scientific instruments.

However, the success of the mission is in doubt. Seven hours after the launch from Cape Canaveral, Astrobotic, the company behind the Peregrine lander, announced that an “anomaly” had prevented the spacecraft from pointing its solar panels stably at the sun. Engineers are working to fix the issue.

The mission forms the first part of NASA’s ambitious Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, with six more launches planned for this year.

Unlike previous NASA missions, which were carried out almost entirely in-house, these efforts will be public-private partnerships, aided by space companies. The Vulcan rocket was built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin as part of the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The lander is expected to reach the moon in 46 days before attempting to land on 23 February. If successful, it will mark the first time a commercial company’s craft has landed on the moon.

A Vulcan rocket launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 8 January carrying a lander bound for the moon

GREGG NEWTON/AFP via Getty Images

There are several reasons why NASA has taken decades to return to the moon’s surface, but a lack of government funding is the most significant. After a cold war spending spree in the 1960s, with NASA receiving a peak of 4 per cent of the total federal budget in 1965, the US government cut back, leaving too little money for further moon missions.

However, private space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX have now driven down the cost of space launches, making it feasible for NASA to plan new lunar missions on a tighter budget.

The successful launch could also increase competition between private space companies. Before SpaceX cornered the launch market, performing a majority of US launches, ULA was the leading force in the US space launch business. Vulcan might help ULA regain its lost market share.

This is particularly important for ULA because it is currently for sale, with potential buyers including Jeff Bezos’s space-flight company Blue Origin.

The Peregrine lander’s scientific instruments include water and radiation sensors for the moon’s surface, which will be essential for NASA’s future crewed missions in the coming years, as part of the CLPS programme. It is also carrying a 2-kilogram rover designed by students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and five small robots made by the Mexican Space Agency.

Vulcan has two further payloads that have attracted controversy. A company called Celestis is performing what it calls “memorial spaceflights” with the cremated ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and actors James Doohan and Nichelle Nichols, which are set to be put in orbit around the sun, while another capsule has other people’s ashes bound for the moon’s surface.

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