What an exciting start to 2024 we’ve had! The maiden flight of ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur rocket, an American commercial company launching its first mission, delays to the Artemis programme, a commercial crew heading to the space station, and now Japan has become the fifth nation to soft-land on the Moon. It’s a lot to get your head around, so I’m going to break it down into a few handy guides to tell you everything you need to know.
Let’s start this little series of summaries with Vulcan Cert-1…
What is it?
Vulcan-Centaur is the new rocket from the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a company formed in 2006 from the partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This is the first rocket they have built since forming ULA and is important for the company’s ability to compete with SpaceX.
The Vulcan-Centaur rocket can fly in various configurations depending on customer needs, with up to six solid rocket boosters (attached in pairs), to give it extra thrust capacity, and launch larger payloads than their Atlas V rocket. The two BE-4 engines on the first stage were developed with Blue Origin and will also be used on their heavy lift New Glenn rocket, due to launch later this year.
Why was this launch important?
There have been rumours that ULA is looking for a buyer, and with SpaceX now able to compete for, and win, military launch contracts, the heat is on. Despite maintaining a 100% launch success rate, if you compare the launch rate of SpaceX and ULA in 2023, you can see that ULA really couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong with this mission. SpaceX managed 98 launches in 2023, compared to just three from ULA. Long gone are the days when ULA was the only option for national security launches.
Vulcan was hit by delays, and there were some test failures which resulted in the first launch slipping from the initially hoped for 2019, to January 2024.
The BE-4 engines are also important. Previously ULA has used Russian-made RD-180 engines, and there has been a push to switch to using American-built engines for supply, security and political reasons.
What was the payload?
The main payload on the CERT-1 mission was Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission 1 lunar lander (more on that later), with a secondary payload from Celestis – a memorial spaceflight company. Accepting the risk of flying on a never-before-flown rocket kept the launch costs down for Astrobotic on their maiden flight.
Was the CERT-1 flight a success?
The Vulcan-Centaur launch went incredibly smoothly and ULA CEO, the characterful Tory Bruno, let out a “yee haw” as the rocket made it through launch, MaxQ, booster separation, fairing separation, and Centaur ignition without issue. It delivered Peregrine to approximately 500 km altitude, where it separated, before firing its engine for a third and final time, taking the Celestis memorial payload into a sun synchronous orbit, where small pods containing ashes, DNA, and messages will remain forever.