SEATTLE • The first US spacecraft expected to land on the moon in nearly 50 years will be a robotic moon lander built by closely held Astrobotic Technology, and launched in two years by United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan rocket, the companies told Reuters.
Astrobotic was one of nine companies chosen in November to compete for US$2.6 billion (S$3.6 billion) to develop small space vehicles and other technology for 20 missions to explore the lunar surface over the next decade.
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic picked Vulcan, being developed by a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to launch its Peregrine lander from Florida's Cape Canaveral in the summer of 2021.
Barring schedule slips, Astrobotic said Peregrine would be the first American spacecraft on the moon since Apollo astronauts in 1972.
The mission will ferry technology and experiments to the moon under a Nasa programme that will lay the groundwork for astronaut trips by 2024, under the schedule laid out by the Trump administration.
"Our first flight on Vulcan is also the first big step in going back to the moon," United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno told Reuters on Monday.
Astrobotic said in May that Nasa had awarded it US$79.5 million for the first mission, which will carry up to 28 payloads from eight different countries, including the United States and Mexico.
While the dollar value of the launch contract was not disclosed, it marks a high-profile victory for ULA's flagship heavy-lift rocket, which Astrobotic said it chose over a rival bid by billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX.
Nasa is pushing to outsource the design, development and operations for some space activities to private firms under a strategy championed by the Trump administration.
For ULA, the launch serves as the first of two certification flights for the US Air Force, a key test for a rocket that will replace ULA's legacy Delta and Atlas rocket families, which have been synonymous with space missions for the US military for decades.
The Vulcan will be the backbone of ULA's defence against rival boosters by SpaceX, which has slashed the cost of launches with its reusable rocket technology. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, whose BE-4 engines power the Vulcan, is also working on a heavy-lift booster.
Other countries are also focused on the moon. A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon in January. Meanwhile, India's Chandrayaan-2 rover, launched last month, is on its way to the moon's south pole, which has been unexplored.