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"Vulcan Centaur" at launch: On January 8, 2024, the rocket lifted off from the Cape Canaveral spaceport in Florida for its maiden flight with the lunar lander "Peregrine" on board.

Photo: Chandan Khanna / AFP

A U.S. mission with the goal of a first successful commercial landing on the moon has set off for Earth's satellite. On Monday morning, the ULA Vulcan Centaur rocket lifted off from the Cape Canaveral spaceport with the Peregrine lander on board. Peregrine« has scientific equipment and commercial cargo on board from several countries.

The unmanned capsule from the U.S. company Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, is scheduled to land on February 23 in an area called Sinus Viscositatis (Bay of Tackiness). It would be the first – albeit unmanned – U.S. moon landing since the Apollo missions more than 50 years ago.

A private mission has already failed

Success is by no means guaranteed: In April last year, a Japanese company failed in a similar mission. The reason given by the company ispace was an incorrect height calculation of the lander. Shortly after the planned landing time of »Hakuto-R« on the moon, ispace had no more data from the lander. The company assumes that it fell to the lunar surface in free fall.

If successful, it would have been the world's first private moon landing, and now it is the second such attempt by a company. For years, private companies have also wanted to land on the moon and manage other space projects, including billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX. As with the ISS space station, the US space agency Nasa is also working more and more closely with commercial providers on lunar projects because this has proven to be an efficient and cost-saving way. Conversely, the business model of private companies has so far often depended on government clients.

Findings to serve manned lunar mission

In the case of the "Peregrine Mission 1", private individuals were able to buy space for transporting material to the moon in the lander, which is 1.9 meters high and has a diameter of 2.5 meters. The US space agency Nasa also wants to prepare its own expeditions to the moon, which is about 380,000 kilometers from Earth, with several devices on the trip.

Among other things, NASA wants to study the lunar exosphere during the mission. In addition, the thermal properties and hydrogen content of the material on the lunar surface, called regolith, will be investigated. It is also planned to test advanced solar systems in this lunar collaboration between Nasa and a private company.

The investigations would help "better prepare us to send manned missions back to the moon," NASA scientist Paul Niles said before the launch. As part of the Artemis program, NASA currently plans to orbit the moon at the end of 2024 with three men and one woman on the approximately ten-day Artemis 2 mission. In 2025, astronauts will land on the moon again after more than half a century – at least according to the current plan – "Artemis 3", including a woman and a non-white person for the first time. The long-term goal of Artemis is to establish a permanent lunar base as the basis for missions to Mars.

Native Americans Object to a Cargo

What is important for the U.S. space agency is the help of private space companies. "We don't know how many of these early tests will be successful. But I can tell you that these American companies are technically detail-oriented. They are very business-minded. They are resourceful and motivated," said Chris Culbert, NASA's head of programming, praising Astrobotic and other partners. The companies are highly motivated to conquer the moon as a business field.

In addition to the "Peregrin" mission, NASA is planning further collaborations as part of its CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) initiative to bring material to the moon. In doing so, it awards a kind of delivery contract to a company such as Astrobotic. "Think of the Peregrine spacecraft as a delivery vehicle in space," the private space company writes. Just as shipping companies like DHL send parcels around the world, Astrobotic sends items to the moon." According to the company, "Peregrine" has deliveries from governments, companies, universities and NASA on board from seven different countries.

A shipment of private partners in "Peregrine" is a thorn in the side of at least some Native Americans in the USA: Human and animal ashes are to be put on the moon as a special final resting place as a result of the mission. According to U.S. media reports, the president of the Navajo Nation in the state of Arizona, Buu Nygren, wrote a letter of complaint to NASA: The mission desecrated the moon, which is considered sacred in its culture, it said.