United Launch Alliance (ULA) reached a milestone in space exploration with the successful launch of its Vulcan rocket. The culmination of a decade-long development effort, the Vulcan aims to supplant ULA’s Atlas V rocket and pose a challenge to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the satellite launch market. Crafted by Astrobotic, a pioneering space robotics firm, the Peregrine lunar lander represents private-sector lunar exploration.

The launch occurred at 7.18 GMT and saw the lander enter a highly elliptical orbit upon separating from the powerful new Vulcan Centaur rocket.

Mission control received confirmation signals validating the lander’s separation and the precise trajectory alignment towards its intended lunar destination. Scheduled for a landing on 23 February, Peregrine carries a suite of NASA scientific equipment designed to study the lunar surface.

Operating within NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, Peregrine’s payload comprises five NASA instruments alongside 15 others, targeting critical measurements ranging from radiation levels and subsurface water ice to magnetic fields and the lunar exosphere. This data aims to mitigate risks and capitalise on lunar resources for upcoming human expeditions.

A notable aspect of this mission is the inclusion of the first-ever Latin American scientific instruments destined for the moon’s surface. Among Peregrine’s payload are five miniature moon rovers weighing under 60g each, with contributions from Latin American entities and Carnegie Mellon University.

In addition to the lunar lander, the mission carried a commemorative payload. This payload contained the remains and DNA of several individuals associated with the Star Trek television franchise, including actors like James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, and Nichelle Nichols. This poignant inclusion honoured their connection to the franchise and their voyages among the stars.

However, controversy surrounds Peregrine’s additional non-scientific payloads. Notably, among these is a physical coin carrying one Bitcoin, signifying the inclusion of cryptocurrency in the lunar mission. A lunar dream capsule from Japan holds nearly 186,000 messages from children worldwide.

The historic event aims to achieve the first soft landing on the lunar surface by the United States in over 50 years.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO, lauded the team’s years of hard work and emphasised the mission’s significance in returning to the moon. Bruno claimed ULA was the sole entity capable of meeting specific US requirements in the market. The flight’s success marks one of two necessary test launches before the rocket system can be certified to carry national security payloads for the US Space Force.