April 21, 2024


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Highlights from the successful lunar landing of the Odysseus spacecraft

Highlights from the successful lunar landing of the Odysseus spacecraft

For the first time in half a century, an American-made spacecraft has landed on the moon.

The robotic lander was the first American vehicle to land on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, the concluding chapter in humanity's astonishing achievement of sending humans to the Moon and bringing them all back to life. This is a feat that has not been repeated or even attempted since.

The lander, named Odysseus, and slightly larger than a phone booth, arrived at the moon's south polar region at 6:23 pm ET on Thursday.

Landing time came and went in silence as flight controllers waited to hear confirmation of success. A brief pause in communication was expected, but minutes passed.

Then Tim Crane, chief technology officer of Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based company that built Odysseus, reported that a faint signal was detected from the spacecraft.

“It's faint, but it's there,” he said. “So get ready people. We'll see what happens here.”

Shortly after, he announced: “What we can confirm without a doubt is that our equipment is on the moon and we are broadcasting. So congratulations.”

“Houston, Odysseus has found his new home,” he later added.

But since the spacecraft's ability to communicate properly remains unclear, the celebration of applause and high-fives at mission control was subdued.

Later in the evening, the company announced more promising news.

“After troubleshooting communications, flight controllers confirmed that Odysseus was upright and began transmitting data,” Intuitive Machines said in a statement. “Right now, we are working on correlating the first images from the lunar surface.”

While this project was far more modest than the Apollo missions that led astronauts to walk on the moon, the hope at NASA was that it could help usher in a more revolutionary era: transportation around the solar system that was as economical as it was concerned. With space travel.

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“I think this is a smart thing that NASA is trying to do, which is to create a competitive ecosystem of providers to meet its needs,” said Karissa Christensen, CEO of BryceTech, a space consulting firm.

Intuitive Machines is one of several small companies hired by NASA to transport instruments that will conduct reconnaissance on the lunar surface before NASA astronauts return there, scheduled for later this decade.

For the mission, NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million under a program known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, to deliver six instruments to the moon, including a stereo camera intended to capture the billowing dust kicked up by Odysseus as it approached. Surface and radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals.

There were also merchandise from other customers, such as a camera made by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and an art project by Jeff Koons. Parts of the spacecraft were coated with reflective material made by Columbia Sportswear.

Odysseus left Earth early on February 15 aboard a SpaceX rocket. It entered the moon's orbit on Wednesday.

The run-up to landing included last-minute shuffling of cards.

After the spacecraft entered the lunar orbit, Intuitive Machines said it would land on the moon at 5:30 pm on Thursday. The company said Thursday morning that the spacecraft had moved to a higher altitude and would land at 4:24 p.m

On Thursday afternoon, the landing time was changed again, with the company saying an additional orbit around the moon would be needed before the landing attempt at 6:24 p.m. A company spokesman said that the laser device on the spacecraft, which was supposed to provide data on its altitude and speed, was not working.

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The additional orbit allowed two hours for changes to the spacecraft's software to replace a different experimental laser instrument, which NASA had provided.

At 6:11 p.m., Odysseus fired his engine to begin his power descent to the surface. The laser instrument seemed to act as a convenient filler, and everything seemed to be working until the spacecraft went silent for several minutes.

Odysseus's landing site was a flat area near Malaparte A crater, about 185 miles north of the moon's south pole. The Moon's polar regions have attracted a lot of attention in recent years because of the frozen water hiding in the shadows of craters there.

Reaching the moon has proven to be an elusive feat. Unlike the United States, only the government space programs of the Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan have succeeded in placing robotic landers on the moon's surface. Two companies — Japan's Ispace and Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology — had previously tried and failed, as did the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL.

In an interview before the launch, Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, said he hoped NASA would continue to follow a moon-on-budget mentality even if the Odysseus rover crashed.

“It's the only way to really move forward,” he added. “And that's what this experiment is supposed to do.”

In the past, NASA has built its own spacecraft.

Before Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, NASA sent a series of robotic spacecraft, from Surveyor 1 to Surveyor 7, to validate landing techniques and examine the properties of lunar soil. These robotic landings have allayed fears that astronauts and spacecraft would become engulfed in a thick layer of fine dust on the lunar surface.

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But when NASA designs and operates spacecraft itself, it generally seeks to maximize the odds of success, and its designs tend to be expensive.

The 1969 to 1972 Apollo moon landings became the model for a massive program that tackled a problem nearly impossible to solve on an almost unlimited budget—the proverbial feat—while CLPS sought to harness the enthusiasm and ingenuity of fledgling entrepreneurs.

Thomas Zurbuchen, a former NASA chief science officer who started the CLPS program in 2018, estimated that a robotic lander designed, built and operated in the traditional NASA manner would cost between $500 million to $1 billion, or at least five times the space. The agency paid for Intuitive Machines.

NASA hopes that capitalism and competition — with companies proposing different approaches — will spur innovation and lead to new capabilities at lower costs.

But even if these companies succeed, they face uncertain commercial prospects that attract many customers outside NASA and other space agencies.

“It is not clear who these other clients are,” Ms. Christensen said.

Intuitive Machines has contracts for two other CLPS missions, and other companies are expected to image the moon as well. Astrobotic Technology, based in Pittsburgh, has a second mission: preparing to move NASA's robotic rover into a shaded area where there might be ice. Firefly Aerospace, near Austin, Texas, has its Blue Ghost lander mostly ready but has not yet announced a launch date.