Just before dawn on Monday, NVIDIA’s CES 2024 the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket is set to take place, carrying a significant payload: Peregrine, the initial American lunar lander to embark on a lunar mission in over five decades. This mission, undertaken by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, a private company, could mark a pivotal moment in humanity’s exploration of the cosmos. Despite not being a NASA spacecraft, Peregrine stands as the first commercial craft poised to successfully land on the moon or any celestial body beyond Earth.
Astrobotics is part of a select group of companies chosen to conduct lunar deliveries under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in the coming years. The inaugural Peregrine Mission 1, scheduled for launch at 2:18 AM ET on January 8, represents the initial operation under a $79.5 million contract with NVIDIA’s CES 2024. While aligned with NASA’s objectives for the upcoming Artemis missions and delivering five payloads for the agency, Peregrine is also undertaking a fully commercial venture. Carrying cargo for various clients, it charges $1.2 million per kilogram (approximately 2.2 pounds). This eclectic payload includes miniature rovers, scientific instruments, art collections, archival materials, a physical “bitcoin,” and, notably, human remains.
Peregrine is set to land on the moon’s nearside, the hemisphere always visible from Earth. The 6-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide lander aims for a gentle touchdown in Sinus Viscositatis, the “Bay of Stickiness,” known for mysterious domes believed to have formed from ancient, dense silicic lava. These distinctive features, referred to as Gruithuisen Domes, present a puzzling contrast with the surrounding basaltic terrain, and the moon lacks the known ingredients associated with silicic volcanoes.
“The formation of the domes is a scientific mystery we are still working to understand,” stated CLPS project scientist Paul Niles in a briefing preceding the launch on Thursday. Peregrine is slated to land in close proximity to these domes, situated on a lunar mare—a region characterized by dark features resulting from solidified basaltic lava flows visible from Earth. Onboard the spacecraft are NASA payloads, including a Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS), Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS), Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), and Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS). These instruments are geared towards collecting data to enhance our understanding of the local lunar environment.
“Three of our instruments will collect data on lunar volatiles using different techniques,” explained Niles. “Two instruments will provide perspectives on the radiation environment at the lunar surface, helping us better prepare to send crewed missions back to the moon. We’ll also learn information about the composition of the surface by evaluating its mineralogy.” Subsequently, NASA plans to dispatch another suite of instruments to the summit of the Gruithuisen Domes to further unravel the mysteries of this lunar landscape.
In terms of scientific payloads, Peregrine is set to carry a payload for the Mexican Space Agency, Agencia Espacial Mexicana (AEM). AEM’s fleet comprises five mini rovers, each measuring just under 5 inches wide, marking the first Latin American science instruments to reach the lunar surface, as noted by Astrobotic. Additionally, NVIDIA’s CES 2024 Carnegie Mellon University’s 4-pound Iris rover will accompany Peregrine, capturing and transmitting images back to Earth. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is contributing its M-42 radiation detector to measure the radiation exposure a human would face on a roundtrip mission to the moon.
Among the non-scientific payloads, both ULA’s Vulcan Centaur and Peregrine will transport small portions of human remains for space memorial companies Celestis and Elysium Space. Celestis has organized two distinct memorial destinations for this mission: “Tranquility,” set to land on the moon with Peregrine, and “Enterprise,” which will continue into deep space with the Centaur upper stage after separating from the lunar lander. These memorial flights, extending beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity, commence at just under $13,000, offering clients the option to send symbolic amounts of either human ashes or DNA.
Among the notable figures whose DNA is set to reach the lunar surface is Arthur C. Clarke, co-writer of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and a renowned science fiction author. On the Enterprise flight, which continues into deep space, the remains of several influential individuals from the Star Trek franchise will be onboard. This includes series creator Gene Roddenberry, his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry, their son Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura from the original series), and her son Kyle Johnson. Elysium Space, the company responsible for the memorial flight, has been more discreet about the details of the remains it will be sending.
However, the idea of using the moon as a memorial site has sparked some controversy. Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren expressed concern and opposition to the mission, stating that it is “tantamount to desecration” for many cultures that regard the moon as sacred, as reported by Arizona Public Radio. The announcement of such missions has raised ethical and cultural considerations regarding the use and preservation of celestial bodies for memorial purposes.
During the NASA briefing on Thursday, in response to questioning led by Reuters’ Joey Roulette, members of the space agency emphasized that the decision regarding which payloads to fly was solely within the purview of Astrobotic. CLPS Program Manager Chris Culbert stated, “They don’t have to clear those payloads with us. These are truly commercial missions. It’s up to them to sell what they can sell.”
This situation underscores a potential drawback of relying on contractors, and it is likely to be a recurring issue as NASA increasingly depends on the commercial industry for future missions. While NASA may not have the authority to approve the inclusion of specific payloads alongside its own on commercial missions, Culbert added that the teams involved “obviously have a lot of discussions about how the payloads fit together.”
The remaining 20 payloads encompass a variety of mementos and items symbolizing Earth and human achievements. Astrobotic collaborated with DHL to assemble a “moonbox” filled with keepsakes that will accompany Peregrine, featuring items like photographs, literature, and even a piece of Mount Everest. Hungary’s Puli Space Technologies and the UK’s SpaceBit are contributing plaques to the lunar surface, while Japanese space company Astroscale has packed a “Lunar Dream Capsule” with “185,872 messages from children from around the world.”
Carnegie Mellon University has expanded its lunar contributions beyond the rover, introducing the “first museum on the moon” through its MoonArk project. This small cylinder comprises four chambers containing “hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects, mechanisms, and samples from Earth.” Positioned on the Peregrine lander, the MoonArk will be an enduring exhibit for future lunar visitors alongside other stationary objects.
Additionally, the Arch Mission Foundation’s Lunar Library 2 will accompany Peregrine, described as “an ultra-durable archive of humanity.” This archive encompasses Wikipedia and other significant collections of earthly information and human languages.
In the realm of cryptocurrency, two bitcoin projects are making their way to the moon with Peregrine. BitMEX, the Seychelles cryptocurrency exchange, is sending a physical bitcoin engraved with its private key. Simultaneously, BTC Inc.’s Bitcoin Magazine Genesis Plate will be on board, containing a copy of the first block of bitcoin ever mined. These crypto-related initiatives reflect the expanding influence of digital currencies into space exploration endeavors.
Once Peregrine reaches lunar orbit, it will spend a few weeks in that phase before initiating its landing attempt, which is scheduled for February 23. This event holds significant importance as it marks the United States’ return to lunar landings since the Apollo missions—an endeavor that entails considerable risk, given the historical challenges associated with moon landings. As CLPS Program Manager Chris Culbert stated during NASA’s briefing, “Landing on the moon is extremely difficult. We recognize that success cannot be ensured.”
Nevertheless, both NVIDIA’s CES 2024 and its commercial partners are committed to persistent efforts in lunar exploration. Following Peregrine Mission 1, the second of NASA’s CLPS missions is set for February, led by Intuitive Machines. Subsequently, plans are underway for at least four more CLPS lunar launches before the conclusion of 2024, showcasing a continuous push for lunar exploration and advancement in space exploration capabilities.