A rendering of the Peregrine spacecraft on the lunar surface. (Image: Astrobotic)

Editor’s Note: Shortly after being deployed into space by ULA’s Vulcan rocket, the Peregrine lander suffered a serious anomaly in its propulsion system. The “critical” fuel leak has jeopardized Astrobotic’s moon landing attempt on Feb. 23.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is fueled and ready for the long-awaited launch of its Peregrine lunar lander. No commercial spacecraft has safely landed on the Moon yet. Peregrine Mission One (PM1) is poised to be the first U.S. lunar landing since the Apollo program five decades ago. The launch is expected to take place on Jan. 8, 2024, from Cape Canaveral, FL, on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket.

The mission will be Astrobotic’s first attempted lunar landing as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, a key part of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration efforts. The science and technology payloads sent to the Moon’s surface as part of CLPS intend to lay the foundation for human missions and a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface.

The lander carries a total of 20 payloads, or cargo, including five from NASA’s CLPS initiative, as well as various scientific instruments, technologies, mementos, and other payloads. A bitcoin is even making its way into space aboard Peregrine along with a student-built rover and several payloads representing humanity through artwork and historical artifacts.

In this interview, Astrobotic CEO and Co-Founder John Thornton discusses the long journey of the company from Lunar XPRIZE to now preparing for the launch to the Moon. Under Thornton’s leadership, the company has booked three lunar missions with its Peregrine, Griffin, and MoonRanger spacecraft.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton at the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. (Image: Astrobotic)

Historically, only few moon missions have succeeded. “Space is really hard,” said Thornton. “You really have to love it to be in the game. And, fortunately, there are a lot of people who love it. The thing that brings people together in space is the passion and doing something big — that's certainly what we have here at Astrobotic.”

Astrobotic is at the precipice of a groundbreaking historic opportunity. “To get to this point is a really big accomplishment by our team and all of the people that have supported us over the years,” said Thornton. “There have been multiple points in our history where just enough people believed in us — both internal and external to the company. Just to get the lander completed, passing all its environmental tests, and onto the launch vehicle ready for launch is a major accomplishment for our team. It’s extremely exciting.”

Tech Briefs: Astrobotic was spun out from Carnegie Melon University and has a growth trajectory that included participating in the Google Lunar XPRIZE and winning NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract. As the Co-Founder and CEO of the company, can you share what inspired the idea of delivery services to the Moon?

John Thornton: It started by the XPRIZE inspiring us to build a team that could go and land and drive 500 meters and send back pictures and video — that's where it really started. That gave us the platform, and the industry the platform, to start having the conversation around what it takes to go back. What we quickly realized was that the prize, even though it sounded big at $20 million, and then got increased, was not nearly big enough to make the mission happen. That’s not even enough to pay for a launch. So, what we quickly realized is that you needed to have a business for delivery to the surface. The Moon was the most logical start to that business. It took a long time to convince the world of that. Our first payload sale was back in 2014 and it took many years of building up that payload backlog to get to the point where NASA and CLPS ultimately agreed that the U.S. government wants to send payloads to go to the Moon. We were lucky enough to be awarded and here we are.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander is encapsulated with ULA’s Vulcan rocket. (Image: Astrobotic)

Tech Briefs: Putting a lander on the Moon isn’t easy — we have seen a few in the past years that didn’t make it and then Chandrayaan-3 that successfully landed. What makes it so hard and from the technology standpoint how is the Peregrine designed to address the challenges?

Thornton: The Moon is a quarter of a million miles away and just that makes it very challenging. But perhaps the biggest challenge is not being able to fully test the landing here on Earth in the exact same way. The Moon is one-sixth of Earth gravity, and it’s a vacuum environment, so you can’t recreate that here. You can’t just fire the lander’s engines and fly it here to test it. When we are flying the vehicle through space and firing the engines, that will be the first time those engine firings will occur in space. When we fire our engines to descend to the surface, that will be the very first time that all those systems are being tested on an end-to-end basis. So, it’s really, really challenging. There are a lot of things that need to go right all in a row. If you look back in history, only about half of lunar missions were successful. We are certainly hoping we will be on the good half, and we can increase the cadence of successful missions in a big way with our commercial endeavors.

Tech Briefs: How did Astrobotic come up with the name for the lander and how did you pick the landing site?

Thornton: The Peregrine name came from the fastest-flying bird, and we thought that was appropriate for a flying vehicle that could go out to the surface of the Moon and land. You do have to travel quite fast, and then slow down quite a bit to get to that location at the end of day. The initial landing site was called Lacus Mortis, and that was chosen to be near an entrance to what could have been a cave underneath the Moon. That was changed to Gruitheisen Domes because NASA wanted to do science at a specific location in the vicinity of the domes.

Tech Briefs: We are a few days away from the launch, how are the launch preparations going? How is the mission going to happen?

Thornton: Prep is going very, very well. Our original date of December 24 had to be scrubbed because United Launch Alliance (ULA) was doing its wet dress rehearsal and found some issues on the ground side. They have since redone that test and passed with flying colors. So, we are now past the hardest final test before launch and looking good for a January 8 liftoff. The way the mission will go is we are going to fly from Florida, and about a half hour or so after launch, we will be separated from the launch vehicle. That point is when our mission begins. The lander will communicate back to Earth from that point and start its journey out to the Moon. Once down on the surface, that will be the exciting part. That’s when our active payloads will drop and deploy.

Tech Briefs: With a payload capacity of 90 kgs, the lander will be carrying a variety of payloads. The range includes science experiments from NASA to art/music from a school. Can you tell us more about the payloads?

Thornton: Our goal as a company is to make space accessible to the world. We are starting with the Moon for lunar delivery. The payloads that are attached to us are as diverse and as widespread as you might imagine. Everyone has got their own mission, doing their own thing. From marketing experiences for customers, to science and technology demonstrations, to time capsules, these are all important milestones for countries. The goal of the lander itself is to provide support, communication, and power for the payloads so they can ultimately succeed.

A guide to Peregrine’s journey to the lunar surface. (Image: Astrobotic)

Tech Briefs: The lander will also carry Carnegie Melon University’s Iris, which is the first American student-developed rover. What will be the rover’s task after the landing?

Thornton: It’s incredibly exciting that the rover is a part of this mission, and I love that students were the ones who built it. The first and the top priority is just to get the rover to work. It is a student-built rover that was done on a shoestring budget, so if it gets there and drives that is already mission success. Beyond that, the rover is intended to turn around and photograph the lander and take other photographs on the surface of the Moon. It’s going to be testing out its technical capabilities — the wheels, the motors, cameras, avionics — making sure that it can survive. We are going to learn a lot about how our rovers can drive on the Moon. If it works on the Moon, it actually could be the only way we get a picture of ourselves from the surface, so I am really hoping that they are successful.

Tech Briefs: With NASA’s strategy to return Astronauts to the Moon and then also go beyond and explore Mars, what is the future of space robotics?

Thornton: The future is very bright. What we are going to see first is a big return of the surface the Moon with the Artemis program. We are going to have the first woman and person of color land on the surface of the Moon inside of this decade. That’s very exciting and I think that will be the dawn of a new era of how we go to the stars, how we think about the solar system. Robotics is going to play a support role. It is going to enable the science and exploration in far-off locations as well as support our astronauts on the surface of the Moon. It’s going to be the infrastructure that provides the capability to one day harness resources for in-space purposes. So, I think we are just laying the foundation stones for a very promising future. And I think the Moon and space is how we start that future.

This article was written by Chitra Sethi, Editorial Director at SAE Media Group.