The first US spacecraft to land on the moon since Apollo will be launched on Monday | Science & Technology News

NASA paid a start-up company just $108m (£85m) to take five scientific instruments to the moon – a fraction of the cost of launching its own mission.

By Thomas Moore, science reporter @SkyNewsThomas

Sun 7 Jan 2024 18:11, UK

A new era of commercial trips to the moon is set to begin Monday, when NASA takes a ride on an untested private lunar lander — with human remains and a marketing stunt by a sports drink manufacturer.

Peregrine Mission-1 was the first US spacecraft to land on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

But the robotic lander, about the size of a garden shed, will be controlled by American company Astrobotic.

NASA The start-up paid just $108m (£85m) for five scientific instruments to take to the moon.

Peregrine Lunar Lander. Image: A.P

Chris Culbert, head of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, said the first flight would launch frequent and cost-effective private trips to the lunar surface.

Landing on the moon is so difficult that success cannot be guaranteed, he said. „But these companies are technically rigorous and very business-minded. They are resourceful and driven.”

John Thornton, president of Astrobotic, thanked NASA for „rolling the dice for business.”

The work is on a tight budget.

In the first test flight of the United Launch Alliance-built Vulcan Centaur rocket, Peregrine will blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to cut costs.

The Peregrine Lunar Lander prepares to attach a payload. Image: A.P

The UK-designed instrument will probe the moon's atmosphere

With good weather forecast, the release window opens at 7.18am UK time on Monday. The landing is scheduled for February 23.

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One of NASA's scientific instruments on board was designed at the Open University in England. It will be used to study the moon's incredibly thin atmosphere and the movement of water molecules.

Dr Simeon Barber, who led the design team, said it was very different for a private mission compared to previous efforts by responsible space agencies.

„We had to develop a tool in a year during an epidemic,” he told Sky News. „That would not have happened under the old system of spacecraft development.

„But it allows you to take a little more risk and take big steps forward.”

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Controversy over human remains

Peregrine's mission has attracted controversy due to some of its commercial payloads.

The Navajo Nation of Native Americans wrote to NASA, requesting that the launch be delayed because capsules containing human remains would be on board.

The country's president, Buu Nygren, said sending cremated remains to the moon „tantamount to desecrating this sacred place”.

Joel Kearns, who heads NASA's exploration science strategy, said the space agency has no control over commercial products on board.

But he added: „We take the concerns of the Navajo Nation very seriously, and we will continue this conversation.”

Mr Thornton, chairman of Astrobotic, said it was disappointing that although the intention to transport human remains had been announced in 2015, the objection was raised only recently.

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„We tried to do the right thing at every turn,” he said. „I would have liked to have had this conversation a long time ago. Hopefully we can find a good way.”

The mission will carry souvenirs to the moon

Eyebrows have also been raised over other commercial payloads.

Delivery company DHL launches its Moonbox program, carrying memorabilia such as photographs, novels and a model of Mount Everest to the lunar surface.

Also on board will be messages from 80,000 children and a can of Pocari Sweat, an energy drink that includes a powdered form of the product that future astronauts can mix with lunar water.

Avoids criticism of the astrobotic mission's commercial inventory.

„It's an important honor to take America back to the surface of the moon,” Mr Thornton said. „We've been dreaming about this for 16 years.”

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