Intuitive Machines Safely lands its Odysseus lunar lander on the moon, a 1st for the US since 1972

The United States of America is back on the lunar surface for the first time in the 21st century. Intuitive Machines safely conducted a nail-biting descent using its Odysseus lunar lander to attain such a milestone for Americans. Odysseus is a robotic lander developed by Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company.

The lander successfully touched down near the lunar south pole on Feb. 22. This is a great accomplishment for the U.S. and the entire world. It is also the first time a private firm is ever soft-landing on the lunar surface.

After the American Apollo 17 lunar lander left the lunar surface in December 1972, no other U.S. spacecraft has ever reached the moon’s surface. However, Odysseus lunar lander has opened the gateway for Americans to return to the moon in the 21st century.

“What a triumph! Odysseus has taken the moon,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a video message the agency aired just after confirmation of a successful touchdown. “This feat is a giant leap forward for all of humanity. Stay tuned!”

Why this Touchdown is Important to NASA

NASA commenced its CLPS program to take advantage of private companies in sending some instruments to the lunar surface. The agency under its CLPS chose Intuitive Machines in 2019 to deliver six NASA science instruments to the lunar surface using its Nova-C lander.

The British telephone booth-sized lunar lander carried these instruments worth $118 million to the lunar surface. These six instruments would enable NASA to conduct experiments and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface. NASA officials revealed that these instruments cost the agency an extra $11 million to develop.

They will carry out several investigations including using one of them named NDL (“Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing”) for LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology which will collect data during descent and landing. NDL performed greatly during the soft landing process on Feb. 22.

NASA designed another instrument to analyze how the spacecraft’s engine exhaust communicates with lunar dirt and rock. Another instrument will demonstrate autonomous positioning tech which would possibly become part of a GPS-like navigation system on and around the moon. 

Other Instruments Carried by Intuitive Machines Spacecraft

Aside from NASA’s science instruments, Intuitive Machines also added six commercial payloads on its Odysseus lander. One of these payloads comes from Columbia Sportswear, which would test its “Omni-Heat Infinity” insulative material in deep space. Another instrument aboard the lunar is a set of sculptures by the artist Jeff Koons.

There is also a secure lunar repository that targets helping to preserve humanity’s storehouse of accumulated knowledge. EagleCam is another instrument that arrived at the lunar surface aboard the Odysseus. The EagleCam was designed as a camera system by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

It was built to deploy from the Odysseus at about 100 feet (30 meters) above the lunar surface and take pictures of the lunar lander’s epic touchdown from below. We should be expecting more fascinating images from this mission in the coming days.

How Intuitive Machines Made a new history with this landing

Employees of Intuitive Machines celebrating after the successful touchdown of the company’s Odysseus moon lander on Feb. 22, 2024. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Intuitive Machines carefully developed the lunar lander to successfully reach the lunar surface with its 12 payloads. On Feb. 15, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the rocket with those 12 payloads toward the moon. After separating from the rocket, the lander continued with its journey towards the moon.

On Feb. 21, the Odysseus lander reached the lunar orbit as planned. It began to prepare for its touchdown immediately. On Feb. 22, the lander’s controllers noticed that the space probe’s laser rangefinders which allow it to determine its altitude and horizontal velocity were not operating properly. Hence, the team pressed NASA’s experimental NDL payload into service for this essential function.

This challenge made Intuitive Machines adjust the landing attempt back by two hours to ensure that the new plan worked effectively. During this trying moment, the team designed a software patch on the ground and beam it up to Odysseus. The last-minute workaround enabled the team to succeed.

At around 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT) on Feb. 22, Odysseus fired up its main engine for an essential 11-minute burn that slowed its descent toward the moon’s surface. At 6:23 p.m. EST (2353 GMT), Odysseus safely touched down near the rim of the crater Malapert A. This region is about 190 miles (300 kilometers) from the lunar south pole.

The company didn’t declare the mission a success until after 15 highly tense minutes. It took this long for the IM-1 team to receive a signal from the Odysseus lander. As soon as the signal was confirmed, the team declared the mission a success.

“What we can confirm without a doubt is, our equipment is on the surface of the moon and we are transmitting,” mission director Tim Crain said after that milestone moment. “Odysseus has found his new home.”

So, What Next?

After the successful touchdown, the lander and its payloads will now commence with operation on the moon which would last for seven Earth days on the lunar surface. The IM-1 mission will end when the Sun disappears at Malapert A as the lander is not built to survive during the bitter cold long lunar night.

Note that it takes the moon more than 27 Earth days to rotate once on its axis, so each lunar night lasts roughly two weeks. Let’s hope that the IM-1 mission will make fascinating science discoveries for humankind before the next lunar night.

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