United Launch Alliance has a target date for its Vulcan Centaur rocket’s inaugural flight: May 4th, 2023. Company chief Tory Bruno has announced the four-day launch window starting on May 4th in a call with reporters, where he explained the factors that prompted the company to come up with the schedule.
According to Parabolic Arc, the primary “pacing item” for the launch is Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, which will power the rocket’s first stage. The companies are still working on its qualifications, since they found some inconsistencies among the ones ULA has tested. While the performance variation wasn’t huge, the ULA wants to make sure it’s not a symptom of a bigger issue.
ULA still also has to conduct a series tests for the heavy-lift launch vehicle, including a wet dress rehearsal, wherein it will be fully loaded with propellants and has to complete a practice countdown. Finally, Vulcan Centaur’s main payload, Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander, needs to head to space within a specific window of time each month to be able to fly its desired trajectory to the moon.
Vulcan Centaur was supposed to have its maiden flight in 2022, but Astrobotic asked ULA to delay its launch to give it more time to finish the NASA-funded lunar lander. Bruno said Astrobotic has just finished testing the Peregrine and will soon be making final preparations before shipping it to the rocket’s launch location at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
In addition to the lunar lander, the rocket will also carry two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation to space. The demo satellites’ deployment will give Amazon the opportunity gather real-world data to be able to finalize the design and operation plans for its broadband satellite system.
If Vulcan Centaur successfully flies for the first time on May 4th, it will mark the beginning of a new era for ULA. It plans to eventually replace the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas rockets with the Vulcan Centaur once it’s done with its remaining launch obligations.