What is the Peregrine Mission 1? A commercial spacecraft, including a lunar lander that is intended to deliver 28 payloads to the Moon.
Who is carrying out the launch? The company carrying out the project is Astrobotic Technology, tagline “Leading America Back to the Moon.” For this mission they have used the tagline: “Send your stuff to the Moon!”
Astrobotic were selected through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). United Launch Alliance (ULA) is providing Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle.
When is the launch scheduled for? Monday 8 January 2024 launch from Florida, with a late February 2024 soft landing on the Moon (and further objects to carry on into an orbit around the sun).
What is the controversy? Alongside payloads from NASA and other research agencies, the mission is carrying commercial payloads. These include human remains; a sports drink can (to advertise Pocari Sweat sports drinks); DHL ‘packages’ with personal items that people have paid to have ‘delivered’ to the Moon; a plaque from Bitcoin Magazine.
NASA’s CLPS program manager Chris Culbert recently said, “we have a reasonably good awareness about what payloads” are on board, “but we don’t have a framework for telling them what they can and can’t fly… They don’t have to clear those payloads with us. These are truly commercial missions. It’s up to them to sell what they tell.”
On Monday 8 January 2024, the Centaur capsule is set to lift off from Florida. Part of the payload (the Peregrine lander) will break away and soft land on the surface of the Moon in late February 2024. The rest of Centaur will carry on into deep space, eventually taking up orbit around the sun. Details of the mission are on this NASA webpage.
Here is a video from the launch company about the mission.
Although many of the payloads on board are from NASA (that is, NASA has purchased space onboard), this is a commercial launch carrying commercial payloads, some of which have caused concern.
Believed to be amongst the payloads are:
1. Human Remains. Two companies that deliver cremains to space have payloads onboard this mission: Celestis and Elysium Space.
The first human remains were delivered by Celestis to the lunar surface in 1997. Concerns were raised at the time, and particularly by the Navajo Nation. NASA promised future launches of cremains to the Moon would be in consultation with indigenous groups, but this has not happened with the Peregrine Mission 1.
Elysium (tagline “Ashes into space”) is thought to have a payload on Peregrine destined for the lunar surface.
On their Twitter account, Celestis says that their payload on this mission is not going to the Moon, but rather will carry ashes and human DNA samples to continue on into deep space and solar orbit. However Celestis still advertises on their website the option of delivering ashes to the Moon (sending what they call a ‘participant’ starts at just under $13,000, apparently).
2. A sports drink bottle. The sports drink company Pocari Sweat plans to send a sports drink bottle to the lunar surface with dehydrated sports drink crystals within it. They claim that this would make the soft drink the first commercial product advertised on the Moon. The bottle will be within the company Astroscale’s own “Lunar Dream Capsule”, which will include other ‘timecapsule’ items. According to Pocari Sweat’s website, “As a drink familiar to many, POCARI SWEAT aims to proclaim the dawning of this new space age to the world by marking the first step.”
3. DHL ‘packages’. According to DHL, the items in their Peregrine “DHL Moonbox” relate to “resource development, scientific investigation, technology demonstration, exploration, marketing, arts and entertainment.” On their website, they suggest ‘non-hazardous, inert’ items that private individuals might want to send for prices starting at $3,270: a company logo; a piece of a graduation tassle; sand from a favourite beach; a scout badge; a family crest; and fraternity or sorority pin; cufflinks; wedding flower petal.
4. A bitcoin. According to Bitcoin Magazine: “The bitcoin, engraved with a public address and private key, is loaded with 1 BTC and will become the first-ever financial asset sent to space.” There will also be a metal plate diplaying the Bitcoin Genesis Block.
Additional non-government payloads are less controversial, and include (much of it digital): artwork; an image bank; samples of recordings of humans speaking; photographs; the Rosetta Project; Wikipedia.
Is this the first landing of commercial property onto the Moon? The Israeli company SpaceIL sent their spacecraft Beresheet to the Moon in 2019. The company had some financial support from the Israeli government, but was at least 90% privately funded. It was meant to soft land, but had technical problems and crashed into the lunar surface instead. Onboard the crashed craft were: a digital copy of English-language Wikipedia; the Israeli constitution; children’s drawings. The main controversy came from a late decision to add to the payload a few thousand tardigrades (micro-animals, also called water bears) trapped in epoxy resin. These may have been destroyed in the crash landing, or they may now be on the lunar surface, with the potential of being ‘revived’ in the future.
Is this legal? The short answer is generally ‘yes’, although the reality is a bit more complicated.
Governance of a launch such as Peregrine Mission 1 comes from a few different sources:
1. International outer space law: According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, outer space is neutral territory and cannot be ‘owned’—so these objects might land on the lunar surface without constituting any sort of ‘ownership’. According to the 1972 Liability Convention and the 1975 Registration Convention, any objects sent to space are the responsibility of the ‘launching state’ (not necessarily the physical location of the launch, but rather the country taking legal responsibility for the object) and have to be registered with the United Nations. As such, although Peregrine is a private launch, the objects on board will be registered with the UN with the ‘launching state’.
2. Domestic regulations: when a country takes responsibility in acting as the ‘launching state’ for an object, they will also have domestic legislation governing their approval. In the US for example, the FAA must give approval to items sent to space. Many of those in favor of postponing the Peregrine launch are arguing that the FAA should withdraw their approval of the launch, particularly in light of the protests from the Navajo Nation.
3. COSPAR guidelines: There are widely respected good practice guidelines for space launches, some of which come from the Committee for Space Research (COSPAR). Some of these relate to ‘planetary protection’ and include sterilising spacecraft before they are launched into space, in order to prevent outward contamination. (For objects returning to earth from space, there is also a contamination procedure upon landing, to prevent inward contamination.) Although I’m certain that a launch carried out from a NASA facility will adhere to COSPAR guidelines, there are solid arguments that these guidelines need to be expanded, for example to include what objects can be left on the lunar surface, and where.
4. Multilateral agreements: The Artemis Accords contain some guidelines human objects on the lunar surface, but they are a non-binding multilateral agreement and have 33 countries as signatories. The Artemis Accords are US-led and seen by some countries as having a US-bias. As such it is unlikely that Russia and China- two other countries with the capacity to reach to the Moon-will ever join the Accords.
As such, the situation is far from ‘lawless’. However, as the cost of launching items continues to be reduced, some argue that there are questions and discussions to be had over what exactly is being sent, and by whom.
My main position is that we need transparency, education, discussion and deliberation. More specifically, I would like to see COSPAR establish further guidelines on good practice for future launches. I am not against commercial space activity, but also feel we need to proceed with caution, and sensitivity to the fact that we are establishing precedents and norms for the future.
There are further discussions to be had about the environmental, cultural, economic and regulatory outcomes from this particular launch, and I personally feel that we have not yet fully had that discussion.