Another U.S. Lunar Lander Lifts Off

Another U.S. Lunar Lander Lifts Off

A U.S. spacecraft is once again on its way to the Moon. If successful, it will be the first U.S. lunar lander since the Apollo era.  Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic tried last month, but its Peregrine lander suffered a propulsion failure. Now Houston-based Intuitive Machines is hoping to enter the history books not only with the first U.S. landing since 1972, but the closest to the Moon’s South Pole.

Liftoff on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 1:05 am ET was a day later than planned. IM’s Nova-C lander uses cryogenic methane as fuel that must be loaded just before launch while the lander, encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing, is on the pad. SpaceX developed a specialized system to do that and practiced it twice before yesterday’s attempt, but had to scrub due to “off nominal methane temperatures prior to stepping into methane load.” Tonight, they began loading earlier to stabilize the temperatures and all went well.

Spacecraft separation occurred about 45 minutes later and Intuitive Machine’s mission control in Houston confirmed acquisition of signal soon thereafter.

Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lander floats away from the Falcon 9 second stage on its way to the Moon. Screengrab, February 15, 2024.

The spacecraft is scheduled to land on February 22, although Intuitive Machines has not said what time.  Its target is the Malapert-A crater, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the South Pole, an area of great scientific interest and close to one of the 13 potential landing sites for NASA’s Artemis III mission that will return humans to the Moon for the first time since Apollo.

Intuitive Machines is one of several companies participating in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program where NASA purchases services to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface. The companies are expected to find other customers to close the business case.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, named Odysseus, ready for launch. Source: IM-1 press kit.

The IM-1 lander, named Odysseus, carries six NASA payloads and six for other customers.

  • ROLSES: Radio Observations of the Lunar Surface Photoelectron Sheath (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
  • LRA: Laser Retro-Reflector Array (NASA Goddard)
  • NDL: Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NASA Langley Research Center)
  • SCALPSS: Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (NASA Langley)
  • LN-1: Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)
  • RFMG: Radio Frequency Mass Gauge (NASA Glenn Research Center)
  • Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Heat Infinity material
  • Embry-Riddle University’s EagleCam that will separate from the lander before touchdown and capture images as Odysseus reaches the surface
  • Jeff Koons’ “Moon Phases” sculptures
  • International Lunar Observatory Association’s ILO-X cameras
  • Galactic Legacy Lab’s Lunaprise secure lunar repository
  • Lonestar Data Holdings digital data center

During a pre-launch briefing on Tuesday, IM Vice President for Space Systems Trent Martin said the company would provide mission updates “at least once daily” on their website and X account (@Int_Machines) and the landing will be webcast.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander ran into trouble early in its mission because of a propulsion failure so everyone will be watching closely to see how Odysseus fares. The spacecraft is a completely different design, but as governments and companies have discovered over the past several years, getting to the Moon and landing successfully is not for the faint of heart.

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