Wednesday, July 24, 2024

First US lunar lander since 1972: Private spacecraft touches lunar surface

Intuitive Machines' Odysseus Lander The first US-built spacecraft touched down on the moon Thursday after a historic, nail-biting descent following a last-minute navigation sensor malfunction. Moon landing More than 50 years and the first by a private company.

After delaying a final descent into orbit to press a NASA navigation sensor into service — and to send hastily written software patches to the lander's flight computer — Odysseus settled in for touchdown near a crater at 6:23 p.m. EST. 186 miles from the moon's south pole is called Malabert A.

An artist's impression of the Odysseus lander on the lunar surface.

Intuitive machines

Engineers at Intuition Machines' Nova Control Center in Houston expected it would take two minutes or more to re-establish communications after landing, but the expected signal was not found immediately.

Finally, a faint signal was picked up by a communications antenna in the United Kingdom, indicating that the spacecraft had indeed missed touchdown.

“Without a doubt, we can confirm that our equipment is on the surface of the moon, and we're sending,” mission director Tim Grein told flight control. “So congratulations, IM team! Let's see how much more we can get out of it.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated Intuitive Machines, SpaceX. The Falcon 9 rocket that launched Odysseus Kennedy Space Center and the agency's own commercial lunar program said last week that it was a “landing of a lifetime.”

“Today, for the first time in more than half a century, the U.S. has returned to the moon,” he said. “Today, for the first time in human history, a commercial company, an American company, launched and led a mission there. Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA's commercial partnerships.”

He concluded, “What a victory! … This feat is a giant leap forward for all of mankind.”

But a more detailed assessment of the health of the spacecraft and its payloads awaited analysis of the telemetry. Finally, two hours after touchdown, “after fixing communications, flight controllers have confirmed that Odysseus is upright and has begun transmitting data. Now, we are working to link down the first images from the lunar surface,” the company said.

Intuitive machines

The historical descent began on a day when Odysseus broke into an orbit inclined 80 degrees to the moon's equator. During its descent toward the surface Thursday, on-board cameras and lasers were programmed to scan the ground below to identify landing landmarks, providing steering inputs to the lander's guidance system to help fine-tune the trajectory.

But those sensors failed to function properly, prompting Intuitive Engines to switch to a set of NASA sensors on board as a technical explanation. Engineers said those sensors were not used during landing, but during descent, they worked properly to provide the necessary navigation data.

About 12 minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft's main engine ignited at an altitude of less than 20 miles and a few minutes later, Odysseus flipped from a horizontal orientation to vertical, plummeting straight down toward the surface.

As the spacecraft dropped 100 feet, an innovative camera set called the “Eagle Cam,” built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, swooped down and attempted to film the lander's final descent. NASA cameras on the spacecraft photograph the ground directly below.

By the time Odysseus reached about 33 feet above the surface, the main engine had pushed it to a planned landing speed of about 2.2 mph—walking speed for senior citizens. Although it took longer than expected to re-establish communications after touchdown, it was a relief to have a faint signal picked up in the United Kingdom.

“We copy you, Odysseus Lander!” Coonhilly Observatory said on social media. Congratulations to the @int_machines team and fellow partner companies – we're 'over the moon' to have played a part!”

Video from the lander's internal cameras and the Eagle Cam could not be transmitted back to Earth in real time. Intuitive Engines engineers initially said the first images were expected within a half-hour or so of touchdown, but given communications issues, those images were expected later.

The successful lunar landing marked the first touchdown by an American-built spacecraft since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, and the first by a privately built spacecraft.

A camera on the Odysseus lander captured an image of the moon below the spacecraft after a critical engine fired Wednesday to brake it into lunar orbit.

Intuitive machines

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic It had intended to earn that honor with its Peregrine lander last month, but the mission was derailed by a ruptured propellant tank shortly after the Jan. 9 launch. Two previous private moon attempts, One by Israel through another JapanIt also ended in failure.

Only the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan have successfully landed on the lunar surface. Japan's “SLIM” lander Partially successful with a touchdown on January 19.

Both Peregrine and Odysseus were funded by NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS (pronounced “clips”), designed to encourage private industry that NASA could use to transport payloads to the Moon.

The agency's goal is to help kickstart development of new technologies and collect the necessary data. Artemis Astronauts plan to land near the moon's south pole later this decade.

NASA paid Astrobotics $108 million for its contribution to the Peregrine mission, and another $129 million for the Odysseus instruments and transport to the moon.

What's on the Odysseus Moon Lander?

Odysseus also carried six NASA instruments and six commercial payloads, including miniature moon sculptures by artist Jeff Koons, proof-of-concept cloud storage technology, Columbia Sportswear insulation blankets and a small astronomical telescope.

Among the NASA experiments: an instrument to study the charged particle environment on the lunar surface, navigation technology and downward-facing cameras designed to photograph how they affect soil at the landing site.

Also on board: An innovative sensor using radio waves to accurately determine how much cryogenic propellant is in a tank in the weightless environment of space, technology expected to be useful for subsurface lunar missions and other deep space missions.

Odysseus and its instruments are expected to operate on the surface for about a week until the sun sets on the landing site. At that point, the lander's solar cells can no longer generate power and the spacecraft shuts down. Odysseus was not designed to survive a very cold lunar night.

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