The first American lunar lander since Apollo is preparing for launch on Monday space

Final preparations are underway at Cape Canaveral, Florida, for a historic mission to place a US lander on the moon, a feat not seen in more than 50 years since the end of the Apollo project.

Last-minute glitches aside, Peregrine's first mission, named after the fastest animal on Earth, will take to the skies at 7.18am UK time on Monday. After orbiting the planet, it will head toward the Moon and slide into lunar orbit before attempting a landing shortly after local sunrise on February 23.

Even in the complex world of space exploration, the mission is fraught with danger. While NASA has instruments on board the robotic lander, this is a commercial operation. No private company has been able to achieve a soft landing on the surface of the Moon or any other celestial body.

“There's a lot of flight here,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, the Pittsburgh company leading the mission. “It's a mix of emotions. There's suspense and excitement, but I'm also a little terrified because there's a lot at stake.”

Adding to the tension is the fact that the Vulcan Peregrine rocket it sits on has never flown before, even though its manufacturer, United Launch Alliance, has had a 100% mission success rate with previous rockets.

Peregrine is the first mission to fly under NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, a new scheme in which the space agency pays private companies to deliver scientific equipment to the Moon. Peregrine carries five NASA payloads and 15 others. One, a shoebox-sized rover from Carnegie Mellon University, is set to become the first American robot to orbit the moon.

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“This whole mission is not easy,” said Chris Colbert, CLPS program manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center. “Landing on the moon is very difficult. We realize that success cannot be guaranteed.”

A drawing of the moon showing different descents

Not all of the payloads are scientific: alongside the flight are a copy of Wikipedia, a physical currency loaded with a single bitcoin and DHL “moon boxes” carrying memorabilia ranging from novels and photographs to a small block of Mount Everest. Also on board, thanks to memorial companies Elysium Space and Celestis, are cremated human remains and DNA, some of which belonged to Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.

Recent payloads have proven contentious. In a letter to NASA, Navajo Chief Bo Nygren asserted that the moon is sacred to many indigenous cultures, and said depositing the material “is tantamount to desecration.” In response, Colbert maintained that Peregrine was a commercial mission and that NASA was not in a position to tell Astrobotics what it could and could not fly.

The Peregrine Falcon is associated with an ancient lava flow called Sinus Viscositatis, or Gulf of Adhesion, so named because the formations indicate that the lava was of unusual consistency. If all goes well, Peregrine's instruments will measure radiation levels, surface and subsurface water ice, magnetic field, and the extremely fragile layer of gas called the exosphere. The readings are expected to help reduce risks and harness the moon's natural resources when humans return to its surface.

“It's definitely a big risk, but we knew that when we got into this game,” said Simon Barber, a senior research fellow at the Open University and co-principal investigator of the Peregrine ion trap mass spectrometer. PITMS, a small mass spectrometer that sniffs out molecules as they bounce on the moon's surface.

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PITMS will analyze the composition of the Moon's exosphere and monitor how it changes during the eight or so Earth days that the lander will operate. The researchers hope to see the effect of natural cycles, such as temperature fluctuations from 100°C to -100°C, and special landing activities. “We asked the rover team to make a donut to expel some gas,” Barber said. “They said they would try.”

As a potential resource for future missions, water is a key molecule to find. PITMS may reveal how water molecules are released from the surface during the day and trapped again at night, shedding light on the circulation of lunar water.

Peregrine is the first in a wave of landers headed to the Moon under the CLPS scheme. The next device, made by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, is scheduled to launch in mid-February. It would take a more direct route to the moon and might land before Peregrine.

While many scientists welcome increased commercial interest in the Moon, some have called for it Agreements to protect sites of special importance, such as potential future bases for lunar telescopes or gravitational wave detectors. Professor Catherine Joy from the University of Manchester, a member of the committee, said: “People need to think about this now.” Potential scientific teamwhich will use the drilling and sampling instrument on a future CLPS mission to assess resources on the Moon.

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

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