Moon

Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus Lander Begins Its Moon Odyssey

Now it’s Intuitive Machines’ turn to try making history with a robotic moon landing.

Today’s launch of the Houston-based company’s Odysseus lander marks the first step in an eight-day journey that could lead to the first-ever soft landing of a commercial spacecraft on the moon. Odysseus would also be the first U.S.-built spacecraft to touch down safely on the lunar surface since Apollo 17’s mission in 1972.

The lander — which is as big as an old-fashioned British phone booth, or the Tardis time portal from the “Doctor Who” TV series — was sent spaceward from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 1:05 a.m. ET (0605 UTC).

Liftoff was originally scheduled for the previous night, but was postponed due to concerns that arose while getting ready to load methane fuel onto the lander. The concerns were resolved, and tonight’s countdown proceeded smoothly.

After launching Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster flew itself back for a touchdown on SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, not far from its Florida launch pad. Meanwhile, Odysseus separated from the rocket’s second stage and pressed onward to the next phase of its lunar odyssey.

Last month, a different company called Astrobotic had been in line to achieve the first commercial moon landing, but its Peregrine lander suffered a propellant leak after liftoff — a setback that forced the company to cancel the moon mission and instead send the robot to its fiery doom during atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

“Landing on the moon is extremely challenging,” Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, told reporters in advance of Odysseus’s launch. “You’ve probably seen that, over the past year, success of every landing was never assured.” (Those landing attempts included failures by Russia and a Japanese private venture, as well as successes by the Indian and Japanese space agencies.)

Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said he’s confident his company’s attempt will be successful. “We learned from others … but in addition, we bring things together quickly. We bring hardware and software together in the early stages of development and testing, and we test often,” he said during NASA’s webcast.

“Test, test, test like we fly — that’s the key to success,” Altemus said.

If all goes according to plan, Odysseus will power its way to a Feb. 22 landing near Malapert A, a crater in the lunar south polar region. The area around the moon’s south pole is a key target for exploration because many of its craters are thought to hold reservoirs of water ice — a potential resource for future moon bases.

Like Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander mission, the IM-1 mission is principally supported by funding from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, also known as CLPS. The program is meant to leverage private enterprise — and reduce NASA’s costs in the long run. Kearns said NASA has agreed to pay as much as $118 million to have Odysseus deliver its science payloads to the lunar surface.

Those payloads include cameras that will document the plumes of dust kicked up by the landing, an experimental radio navigation beacon, a radio-based fuel gauge, a laser range finder, a set of laser reflectors and a sensor that will study the moon’s electron plasma environment. Data from the experiments will help NASA plan for the Artemis program’s crewed lunar landings, which could start happening as soon as 2026.

In addition, Odysseus is carrying an array of commercial payloads. One payload is a camera system that will be dropped off during the lander’s descent to take “selfie” pictures of the touchdown. Another payload is a mini-observatory that could capture pictures of the lunar surface and the first image of the Milky Way galaxy’s center as seen from the moon.

There’s also a miniaturized information archive from Galactic Legacy Labs, a digital data storage device from Lonestar Data Holdings, a box of 125 marble-sized moon sculptures created by Jeff Koons, and a test swatch of thermal reflective material from Columbia Sportswear.

Odysseus’s science mission is scheduled to last about a week. The end will come when the sun drops beneath the moon’s horizon, cutting off the solar-powered lander’s ability to charge up its batteries. But that won’t be the end for commercial moon missions: Intuitive Machines is already working on another lander that will drill for ice in the moon’s south polar region. Meanwhile, Astrobotic is getting set to send NASA’s VIPER rover to a spot near the south pole, and Firefly Aerospace is due to deliver 10 NASA payloads to Mare Crisium aboard its Blue Ghost lander.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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