IM-1 Enters Lunar Orbit, Moon Landing Tomorrow

IM-1 Enters Lunar Orbit, Moon Landing Tomorrow

Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 successfully entered lunar orbit today, readying for its scheduled landing tomorrow afternoon at 5:30 pm ET. IM-1’s lander, Odysseus, will take about an hour to descend from orbit to the surface once the command is given. If all goes well, Odysseus will be the first U.S. lander on the Moon since 1972, the first successful commercial lander, and will land closer to the Moon’s South Pole than any other spacecraft.

Houston-based IM announced the successful lunar orbit insertion this morning and later tweeted a selfie of the lander with the Moon below.

The IM-1 spacecraft is now in a 92-kilometer  (57-mile) orbit around the Moon. IM posted the sequence for tomorrow that will lead to the landing at 5:30 pm ET, 19 minutes earlier than earlier announced now that orbit has been achieved (times are in Central Standard Time, add one for Eastern).  IM and NASA will livestream the landing.

IM-1 is the second attempt at a robotic lunar landing through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The first by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic last month failed due to a spacecraft propulsion anomaly.

CLPS is a Public-Private Partnership where NASA purchases services to put NASA payloads on the Moon from several companies that design and build their own spacecraft and procure launch services. They are expected to find non-NASA customers to close the business case.

NASA has six of the 12 payloads on this flight.

At the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation conference today in Washington, D.C., NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy praised the CLPS program and said she and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson will be watching the Odysseus landing tomorrow. Saying this is an “amazing time” for commercial space, she offered “a little bit of a love letter to our commercial community and the amazing things they are doing particularly in support of NASA’s mission.”

She praised Astrobotic for its transparency last month as it dealt with the propulsion failure on the Peregrine lander and how government and industry partners jumped in to help them “make the most of their mission.” It demonstrated “that we are a tight knit community” and “we really see that a rising tide floats all boats.”

CPLS was initiated in 2018 by former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and former NASA Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen who acknowledged the risks, saying it would be like taking “shots on goal” and a 50-50 success rate was acceptable.

Hopefully tomorrow’s landing will be a success to balance the failure of Astrobotic’s Peregrine, but if not there are several more CLPS missions coming up in the next two years. NASA stresses these are commercial missions and the companies and their launch service providers, not NASA, determine the launch dates, but NASA’s CLPS website currently shows a total of eight CLPS mission to various locations on the Moon by Astrobotic (including last month’s failure), IM, Firefly and Draper.

Source: NASA, February 21, 2024.

Odysseus is targeted to land in the Malapert-A crater 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the Moon’s South Pole. That is the closest any spacecraft will have come to the South Pole so far, an area of great scientific interest. NASA plans to land the Artemis III crew in that area in 2026, the first human landing on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972.

So far only governments — the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s; China, India and Japan more recently — have successfully soft landed on the Moon. Not that all government attempts succeed. India’s first try in 2019 failed as did Russia’s in 2023. As for non-government efforts, a Japanese company, ispace, and an Israeli non-profit, SpaceIL, tried but failed as did Astrobotic. All the landers have been robotic except for the six U.S. Apollo crews between 1969 and 1972.

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