IM’s Odysseus Lunar Lander Not Upright After All

IM’s Odysseus Lunar Lander Not Upright After All

Intuitive Machines co-founder and CEO Steve Altemus told reporters this afternoon that initial indications yesterday that the Odysseus lander was upright on the lunar surface were wrong. Apparently it is laying on its side, slightly tilted up. IM still expects to get most of the expected data from the payloads, but they continue to work communications issues to get data and images back to Earth.

Altemus, IM’s Tim Crain, also a co-founder, and NASA’s Joel Kearns and Prasun Desai held a news conference where all were clearly delighted with the landing yesterday even if it didn’t go perfectly.

L-R: Steve Altemus, CEO, Intuitive Machines; Joel Kearns, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration, Science Mission Directorate; Tim Crain, Chief Technology Officer, Intuitive Machines; Prasun Desai, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator, Space Technology Mission Directorate. Photo credit: Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Odysseus, or Odie for short, landed somewhere near the Moon’s South Pole although they don’t know exactly where.  The goal was to land within 100 meters of the designated touchdown point in the Malapert-A crater.  Crain, IM’s Chief Technology Officer, said he thinks they are within 2-3 kilometers of the target. They are working with NASA to use the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to locate it. LRO’s high resolution Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, LROC, which is operated by the University of Arizona, has spotted other landers that made soft landings as well as those that crashed. LRO has been orbiting the Moon since 2009.

Illustration of how Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lander should have set down on the lunar surface. Credit: Intuitive Machines

This is the company’s first mission under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, Intuitive Machines-1 (IM-1). Through CLPS, NASA purchases services from companies like IM to deliver NASA science and technology payloads to the lunar surface. The companies design, build and own the landers and procure launch services, finding non-NASA customers to close the business case. NASA paid IM $118 million for this mission.

Six NASA payloads are aboard Odysseus.  One of them is a technology demonstration for a new type of landing navigation system, Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL), developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

NASA’s NDL saved the mission because IM’s laser altimeter system didn’t work and IM was able to use NASA’s system instead.

Altemus explained that they unexpectedly discovered the laser on their altimeter wasn’t working the night before the landing.  After some orbital adjustments, the spacecraft was in an elliptical orbit that brought it too close to the lunar surface so they decided to use the altimeter to measure the altitude. But the laser didn’t fire. It turned out they had neglected to enable it before launch. For safety reasons, it has a disable switch for when it’s on the ground and it was not enabled before it left the planet. There was no way to flip the switch

They had only several hours to find a solution — design a software patch to tell the spacecraft’s computers to use NASA’s system instead. The patch worked and NDL worked. Although it was launched as a test, it proved its mettle under real-world circumstances. Desai, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said NASA “has already licensed this technology to a small company to commercially provide this to whoever who wants to buy it.”

Odysseus landed at 6:24 pm EST last night and IM reported that it was “upright” on the surface, but Altemus said that was incorrect, the result of a telemetry glitch. As they obtained additional data, they realized the spacecraft is on its side, which he demonstrated with a tiny model of the spacecraft.

Intuitive Machines’ CEO Steve Altemus shows how they think the Odysseus lander is situated on the lunar surface. Screengrab from NASA/IM news conference February 23, 2024.

They are optimistic all the payloads — six from NASA and six from non-NASA customers — will be able to fulfill their tasks.

  • 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

All of them are on the outside of the lander and only one, the Jeff Koons art sculptures, is on the side they believe is facing the surface. It’s a static payload that does not require activation.

The real problem is that some of the antennas for communicating back to Earth are on that panel, complicating efforts to send commands and receive data. On top of that, IM created its own Lunar Data Network of nine ground stations in seven locations around the world to communicate with Odysseus, including several radio astronomy dishes and the Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, U.K.  Altemus said some of the dishes have had configuration problems and weaker power transmission levels at the distance of the Moon.

One of the payloads they are particularly interested in communicating with is Embry-Riddle’s EagleCam. It was supposed to be ejected from Odysseus before it reached the surface so it could take pictures of the landing, but software changes made when shifting to NASA’s navigation system precluded its separation.

The camera is still attached to the lander and will be commanded to detach as soon as possible. Crain said it will land within 30 meters of Odysseus and send back images so they will know for certain how Odysseus is positioned.

Odysseus is one of a new type of lunar lander, less expensive, but also less robust. Powered only by solar cells, not radioisotope power sources, they are not expected to survive the lunar night when sunlight disappears for 14 days and temperatures fall to -250°C (-418°F).  Operations are expected to end on February 29.

Despite the difficulties, the point is that Odysseus made a soft landing on the Moon and communications have been established. An American spacecraft has landed on the Moon for the first time since Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed at Taurus-Littrow aboard Apollo 17 on December 11, 1972.

This time it was sent by a commercial company, not the government.

In a statement, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said “For the first time in more than half a century, America returned to the Moon. Congratulations to Intuitive Machines for placing the lunar lander Odysseus carrying NASA scientific instruments to a place no person or machine has gone before, the lunar South Pole.”


This article has been updated and expanded.

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