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The United States is preparing to launch its first moon lander since the Apollo mission on Monday.
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The United States is preparing to launch its first moon lander since the Apollo mission on Monday.

Preparations are currently taking place in Cape Canaveral, Florida for a significant mission to land a US spacecraft on the moon. This feat has not been accomplished in over 50 years since the conclusion of the Apollo project.

Reworded: With any last-minute technical issues resolved, the first Peregrine mission, named after the quickest creature on the planet, is scheduled to launch at 7:18am UK time on Monday. After completing an orbit around Earth, it will then travel to the moon and enter its orbit, with plans for a potential landing shortly after sunrise on February 23rd.

In the high-risk environment of space exploration, this mission is deemed dangerous. Although Nasa has equipment on the automated lander, it is being carried out by a private company. No other private entity has successfully completed a gentle touchdown on the moon or any other space object.

John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic, expressed the weight of the situation, stating that “there is a lot at stake.” He acknowledged a mixture of emotions, including both thrill and excitement, but also a sense of fear due to the high stakes involved.

The situation is made even more nerve-wracking by the fact that the Peregrine, a Vulcan rocket, has not been launched previously. However, its maker, United Launch Alliance, has a perfect record of 100% mission success with its previous rockets.

The Peregrine mission marks the debut of Nasa’s commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) program, which involves the agency hiring private companies to transport scientific equipment to the moon. Peregrine is carrying a total of 20 payloads, including five from Nasa and 15 from other sources. Among them is a small rover from Carnegie Mellon University, which will be the first American robot to explore the moon’s surface.

Chris Culbert, the programme manager for the CLPS at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, acknowledged that the task at hand is challenging. He stated that landing on the moon is a highly arduous feat and that success is not guaranteed.

Some of the items being transported are not related to science. Included in the payload are a Wikipedia backup, a physical coin with one bitcoin, and DHL “moonboxes” containing various mementos such as books, photos, and even a small piece of Mount Everest. The remains of deceased individuals and their DNA, including that of Gene Roddenberry who created Star Trek, are also being carried by Elysium Space and Celestis, companies that specialize in space memorials.

The recent cargo has caused controversy. Buu Nygren, the Navajo Nation’s president, wrote to Nasa expressing that the moon holds sacred significance for many Indigenous groups. He stated that leaving material on the moon would be seen as disrespectful. In reply, Culbert clarified that Peregrine was a private mission and Nasa did not have authority over Astrobotic’s payload.

Peregrine is heading towards a historical volcanic area known as Sinus Viscositatis, also known as the Bay of Stickiness due to its unique formations. If everything goes as planned, Peregrine will use its instruments to gather data on radiation levels, surface and subsurface water ice, the magnetic field, and the thin layer of gas called the exosphere. These readings are anticipated to aid in reducing risks and utilizing the moon’s resources when humans once again visit its surface.

Simeon Barber, a senior research fellow at the Open University and the lead UK co-investigator on the Peregrine ion-trap mass spectrometer (PITMS), acknowledges the high risk involved in their project. However, they were fully aware of this risk when they decided to embark on this venture. The PITMS instrument, a mini mass spectrometer designed to detect molecules as they travel across the moon’s surface, is their main focus.

PITMS plans to study the makeup of the exosphere on the moon and track any changes that occur during the approximately eight Earth days that the lander will be functioning. The team of researchers aims to observe the impact of natural patterns, such as extreme temperature shifts from 100C to -100C, as well as the lander’s movements. Barber mentioned, “We have requested the rover team to perform a doughnut maneuver to stir up some gases. They have agreed to give it a try.”

Water is an important molecule to discover, as it could potentially be used in future missions. PITMS may provide insight into the release of water molecules from the lunar surface during the day and their capture at night, offering information about the movement of water on the moon.

Peregrine is the initial lander to be launched to the moon as part of the CLPS program. The following lander, created by Intuitive Machines in Houston, is scheduled for a mid-February launch. It will take a more direct path to the moon and may potentially make a landing before Peregrine.

Although numerous scientists appreciate the increase in commercial attention towards the moon, there have been some suggestions for agreements to safeguard particular sites, such as potential bases for lunar telescopes or gravitational wave detectors. “It’s important for people to consider this early on,” stated Professor Katherine Joy from the University of Manchester, who is part of the Prospect science team. This team will be utilizing a drilling and sampling instrument during a future CLPS mission to evaluate resources on the moon.

“We are a long way from space mining, but companies are taking those first steps to understand where would you go and what technology would you deploy. We need to think about the regulatory framework before things move too quickly.”

Source: theguardian.com