The Peregrine 1 lander carrying Nasa scientific equipment is on its way to the moon after a successful launch of the Vulcan Centaur rocket at Cape Canaveral.
It is the first launch of the powerful new rocket built by the Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance, and an attempt to make the first US lunar soft landing in 50 years.
The Peregrine lunar lander, built by space robotics firm Astrobotic, was launched at 7.18 GMT, aiming to become the first lunar landing by a private firm – a feat that has proved elusive in recent years.
Within minutes of separation from the rocket, Astrobotic mission control received signal from the lander, which will now enter a highly elliptical orbit to set it on course for its destination.
Peregrine is set to land on February 23 and will aim to collect data about the lunar surface ahead of planned future human missions.
It is the first mission flown under Nasa’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, a scheme in which the space agency pays private companies to deliver scientific equipment to the moon.
Peregrine carries five NASA payloads and 15 others. Its instruments will measure radiation levels, surface and subsurface water ice, the magnetic field and the extremely thin layer of gas called the exosphere. The readings are expected to help reduce risks and utilize the moon’s natural resources when humans return to its surface.
Also on board are the first Latin American scientific instruments attempting to reach the surface of the moon. Five small lunar rovers, each weighing less than 60 g and measuring just 12 cm in diameter, will be deployed. Carnegie Mellon University also has a rover on board.
More controversially, the lander contained non-scientific payloads, including a physical coin “loaded with one Bitcoin” and a Japanese “moon dream capsule” containing 185,872 messages from children around the world.
The rocket launch was an important first for United Launch Alliance. Vulcan spent about a decade in development to replace ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket and compete with the reusable Falcon 9 of Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the satellite launch market.
ULA CEO Troy Bruno said after the launch of the lunar lander payload: “I’m so excited. I am so proud of this team. Oh my god, it was years of hard work. So far this has been an absolutely beautiful mission. Back to the moon. Our team did such a great job. It’s just… it’s hard to describe.”
He said they are the only team in the market that can deliver what the US needs. Monday’s flight was one of two test launches before the rocket system can be certified to carry national security payloads for the US Space Force.
As well as the lunar lander, the mission also delivers a memorial payload into space containing the remains and DNA of several people associated with the Star Trek television franchise, including actors James Doohan, DeForest Kelley and Nichelle Nichols.