Sunday, February 5, 2023

Update on ULA's Vulcan First Flight

With United Launch Alliance's first Vulcan Centaur on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for two weeks,  it's pretty easy to wonder when the first mission will take place.  The mission, called Certification-1, has been known for quite some time and the major pieces have been moving toward launch for years.  It's intended to deliver two demonstration satellites for Amazon's Project Kuiper internet constellation into low Earth orbit.  It will also place the Astrobotic Peregrine commercial lunar lander in a highly elliptical orbit more than 225,000 miles (360,000 km) above Earth to intercept the Moon, and carry a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight Payload beyond the Earth-Moon system to orbit the Sun forever.  Ars Technica did an exploration into flight readiness this past Friday, and is rather more pessimistic than my "No Earlier Than mid-March" idea I've voiced a couple of times. 

One of the issues is the Peregrine commercial lunar lander.  

Last week, Astrobotic announced that its Peregrine lander had successfully completed its entire flight acceptance campaign. "Peregrine is now ready to be shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida when Astrobotic’s rocket provider, United Launch Alliance, gives the green light to receive it," the company stated. This was important news—except it didn't quite tell the whole story.

This release made it sound like Astrobotic simply needed to ship the lander from Pittsburgh to the launch site, where it would be installed on the rocket. However, the lander's engines, which have been undergoing extensive testing in White Sands, New Mexico, are still not ready for flight and are not yet attached to the lander. The company plans to complete the integration of the engines onto the lander at the launch site in Florida.

Since those engines are pretty much "do or die" to a lander's mission, suffice it to say Peregrine isn't going anywhere until those engines are certified and installed on the lander.  

To add to that, the day before the Ars Technica article NASA changed Peregrine's landing site to one considered more scientifically interesting.  

NASA announced Feb. 2 the Astrobotic’s Peregrine mission, flying payloads for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and other customers, will now attempt a landing near a region called the Gruithuisen Domes on the northeast edge of Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, on the western part of the moon’s near side.

Let's assume that the change of destination only has either a minor impact or no impact on a probe this far along in design.  Other than any delay that change might introduce to choice of launch times, or changes to the payload processing, it should have no effect on the Vulcan Centaur itself.  That doesn't remove any other problems/obstacles to getting that mission accomplished. 

There are other timing constraints as well. United Launch Alliance has a very important upcoming launch for NASA and Boeing. About a week ago, NASA confirmed that the first crewed flight on Boeing's Starliner spacecraft will launch on an Atlas V rocket in April. Because United Launch Alliance's Atlas V and Vulcan rockets will share a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Space Launch Complex-41, this critical human spaceflight will probably take place before Vulcan.

Vulcan's core stage is lifted into a processing facility at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in January.  Image credit United Launch Alliance.

With all of this put together, assuming the Boeing Starliner does get priority over Certification-1, it seems safe to assume that the Vulcan mission will be no earlier than mid to late April.  Eric Berger at Ars Technica says NET May.  The readiness of Peregrine, Starfire, the Vulcan itself, and everything else can push that farther than May.


  1. Yeah. Uh-huh. I wonder how much of the delay time is due to worries over the BE-4 engines?

    So it looks like we actually might get Starship launching before Vulcan. Will be interesting, no?

    Peregrine must be happy about the delays.

  2. Shortages of either launch sites or engines... place your bets!