Peregrine Mission 1 heralds the beginning of the moon’s commercialization

Astrobotic's Peregrine could be the first ever private spacecraft to make a soft landing on the lunar surface.


Hours before sunrise on Monday morning, United Launch Alliance’s brand spankin’ new Vulcan Centaur rocket is scheduled to make its maiden flight carrying a historic passenger: Peregrine, the first American lunar lander to be sent to the moon in over 50 years. And its mission could mark a turning point in humankind’s exploration of the cosmos. Peregrine is not a NASA spacecraft, but one developed by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, a private company. If it survives touchdown, Peregrine will be the first commercial craft to successfully land on the moon — or any planetary body outside of Earth, for that matter.

Astrobotic is among a small group of companies that have been selected to carry out lunar deliveries for the space agency over the next few years as part of NASA’s new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Peregrine Mission 1, expected to launch January 8 at 2:18AM ET, is the first of these operations under a $79.5 million contract with the space agency. But it’s a wholly commercial endeavor, and alongside the five payloads it’ll deliver for NASA to support the upcoming Artemis missions, Peregrine will have cargo for other clients on board too, at a cost of $1.2 million per kilogram (roughly 2.2 pounds). That includes mini rovers and science instruments, collections of art and archival material, a physical “bitcoin” and, controversially, human remains.

Peregrine is headed for the moon’s nearside, the hemisphere that is always facing Earth. The 6-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide lander will (hopefully) touch down softly in a region named Sinus Viscositatis — the “Bay of Stickiness” — for the mysterious domes there that are thought to have been formed long ago by thick silicic lava. These peculiar features, called Gruithuisen Domes, don’t match up with the surrounding basaltic terrain, nor is the moon home to the ingredients so far known to give rise to silicic volcanoes.

A graphic showing the path Peregrine will take to the moon

“The formation of the domes is a scientific mystery we are still working to understand,” said CLPS project scientist Paul Niles in a briefing on Thursday ahead of the launch. Peregrine will land near the domes on a patch of lunar mare, or the dark features created by hardened basaltic lava flows that we can see from Earth. The NASA payloads on board consist of 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 will gather data to help characterize the local environment.

“Three of our instruments will collect data on lunar volatiles using different techniques,” Niles said. “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.” Later, NASA will send another suite of instruments to the summit of Gruithuisen Domes.

As far as science deliveries are concerned, Peregrine will also carry a payload for Agencia Espacial Mexicana (AEM), the Mexican Space Agency. Its fleet of five mini rovers, each measuring just shy of 5 inches wide, will be the first Latin American science instruments to make it to the surface of the moon, according to Astrobotic. Carnegie Mellon University’s 4-pound Iris rover is hitching a ride on Peregrine too, with plans to snap photos that it’ll send back home. And the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is sending its M-42 radiation detector, which is intended to measure how much radiation a human would be exposed to on a roundtrip mission to the moon.

Among the non-science payloads, ULA’s Vulcan Centaur and Peregrine will be ferrying small portions of human remains for the space memorial companies Celestis and Elysium Space. Celestis has two separate memorial destinations planned for the trip: one, “Tranquility,” will land on the moon with Peregrine, while another, “Enterprise,” will continue on to deep space with the Centaur upper stage after it separates from the lunar lander. Flights like these that go beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity start at just under $13,000, and potential clients are given the option to send up symbolic amounts of either human ashes or DNA.

The Peregrine lander seen in position to be encapsulated in the Vulcan Centaur rocket ahead of launch

One of the luminaries whose DNA is headed to the lunar surface will be 2001: A Space Odyssey co-writer and science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke. On the Enterprise flight are the remains of several key figures from the Star Trek franchise, including series creator Gene Roddenberry, his wife, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and their son Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, plus Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura of the original series) and her son, Kyle Johnson. Elysium has been less forthcoming about whose remains it’ll be sending.

There’s been some backlash about the idea of turning the moon into a memorial site. Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren spoke out against the upcoming mission after hearing about the plan, calling it “tantamount to desecration” for the many cultures who consider the moon to be sacred, Arizona Public Radio reported.

In response to questioning led by Reuters’ Joey Roulette during the NASA briefing on Thursday, members of the space agency repeatedly reiterated that the decision of which payloads to fly fell solely on Astrobotic. “They don't have to clear those payloads with us,” CLPS Program Manager Chris Culbert said. “These are truly commercial missions. It's up to them to sell what they can sell.”

The issue highlights one of the potential downsides to relying on contractors, and it’ll undoubtedly rear its head again as NASA leans more heavily on the commercial industry for future missions. While NASA may not be in the position to approve what payloads are included alongside its own on commercial missions, Culbert added that the teams “obviously have a lot of discussions about how the payloads fit together.”

The rest of the 20 total payloads are a mix of mementos and items representing Earth and the achievements of humanity. Astrobotic partnered with DHL to curate a “moonbox” of keepsakes that will fly with Peregrine, including items such as photographs, literature and even a chunk of Mount Everest. Hungary’s Puli Space Technologies and the UK’s SpaceBit are sending plaques to the lunar surface, while the Japanese space company Astroscale has filled a “Lunar Dream Capsule” with “185,872 messages from children from around the world.”

In addition to its rover, Carnegie Mellon created what it’s calling the “first museum on the moon.” The University’s MoonArk project, a small cylinder made up of four chambers that contain “hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects, mechanisms and samples from Earth,” will remain on the Peregrine lander where it can be appreciated by future visitors along with the other stationary objects on board. Similarly, Peregrine will carry the Arch Mission Foundation’s Lunar Library 2, which it calls “an ultra-durable archive of humanity.” Wikipedia is in there, as well as other major collections of Earthly information and human languages.

And, there are two bitcoin projects going to the moon with Peregrine because crypto is, apparently, inescapable: a physical bitcoin engraved with its private key, from the Seychelles cryptocurrency exchange BitMEX; and US-based BTC Inc.’s Bitcoin Magazine Genesis Plate, which includes a copy of the first block of bitcoin ever mined.

Once Peregrine reaches lunar orbit, it’ll remain there for a few weeks before making its attempt to land on the surface. That’s expected to happen on February 23. Considering the US hasn’t put a lander on the moon since the days of the Apollo mission, it’s a pretty big deal. But, it’s risky business. When it comes to moon landings, there have been far more unsuccessful attempts than successful ones. “Landing on the moon is extremely difficult,” Culbert said during NASA’s briefing. “We recognize that success cannot be ensured.”

Regardless, NASA and its commercial partners aim to keep trying, and in close succession at that. Peregrine Mission 1 will be followed by the second of NASA’s CLPS missions in February, led by Intuitive Machines. After that, there are plans for at least four more CLPS lunar launches before the end of 2024.