NASA and IM Agree: Odysseus Is A Success

NASA and IM Agree: Odysseus Is A Success

Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander, the first U.S. spacecraft to soft-land on the Moon in 52 years, is a success as far as the company and NASA are concerned. Despite a significant number of challenges that could have meant failure, including forgetting to enable the laser altimeter before launch, the mission is reaching the end of its expected lifetime having returned megabytes of data for its government and commercial customers.

Odysseus is the first mission for Houston-based Intuitive Machines, one of the companies participating in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS program. Intuitive Machines-1 (IM-1) launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 on February 15 and Odysseus set down on the lunar surface on February 22.

The trip to the Moon was not without drama and the landing definitely did not go as planned, but in the end IM President, CEO and co-founder CEO Steve Altemus called it an “unqualified success” during a news conference this afternoon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was equally enthusiastic when asked about it at an otherwise unrelated briefing this morning. Noting NASA has gotten back data from all six of its payloads, he cheered it as “a success from NASA’s point of view.”

IM has spent the last several days discovering just exactly what went on during and after the landing. Odysseus, or Odie for short, tipped over with some of its antennas pointing down instead of back towards Earth and it took a while to establish stable communications and get back data and imagery.

They knew it was on its side with the main solar arrays pointed away from the sun, but a side solar panel was getting enough sunlight to power the instruments. They thought it might have landed on a rock because it was at an angle.

IM wasn’t even sure where it landed until NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted it. The LRO image revealed it was next to a crater on a 12 degree slope about 1.5 kilometers from its intended destination. The image also showed that Odysseus had skidded when it hit the surface.

Now, after getting back imagery from a camera on the lander itself, they know it initially landed upright, but broke at least one leg while skidding and “gently” fell over, according to Altemus. One image released today shows Odysseus at the moment of touchdown as the engines are still firing, but the leg is broken.

Image of Odysseus landing on the Moon with one landing leg broken. The darker area is lunar regolith being disturbed by the engines, which are still firing. Credit: Intuitive Machines

Another image shows Odysseus’ somewhat perilous landing spot very close to a crater just 500 meters away.

The Odysseus lander on the surface of the Moon. The dark oval area to the left of the gold-covered helium tank is a crater. The near rim is only about 500 meters away. Credit: Intuitive Machines

They think the lander is resting on the other helium tank or a radio shelf. When combined with the 12 degree slope, it is at about a 30 degree angle.

Unfortunately, the main solar arrays are pointing away from the Sun and even though nighttime has not yet fallen, the Sun’s angle no longer will illuminate the side panel and they will lose contact with it tonight.

Still, Tim Crain, IM Chief Technology Officer and co-founder said they received more than 350 megabytes of science and engineering data and he’s hopeful the lander might come back to life when the Sun returns in about three weeks.

NASA’s CLPS Project Scientist Sue Lederer was similarly excited about the data returned by the six NASA payloads not only from the surface, but during the transit to the Moon and descent. Although they may not have gotten all the expected data, “we’ve had 13 amazing days.” Like Crain, she’s optimistic this “scrappy little dude” has more life left.

Crain made an interesting modification to earlier reports about descent and the use of NASA’s Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL) instrument. It turns out it did not assist in the landing.

On Friday, Altemus and Crain revealed that their laser altimeter system didn’t work because technicians did not activate it before the spacecraft left the launch pad and in the hours before landing they were able to upload a software patch to use NASA’s NDL instead.

However, Crain said today that a technical issue precluded the NDL from sending information to Odysseus.  It was only three days after landing that they realized the NDL data hadn’t processed. “The part we missed was there was a data valid flag set all the way back in the laser rangefinder itself. And we needed to populate that in the navigation software that we patched. … Because we missed that, the navigation algorithm said ‘you’ve got measurements but I don’t see my data valid flags that I’m expecting from the original laser rangefinder.’ So those did not process after all. So basically we landed with our IMU and our optical navigation data flow algorithms, which were unique. It’s the first time anybody’s flown this algorithm and it exceeded expectations because we lived to tell about it.”

Lederer was nonetheless upbeat about NDL. She said all the NDL data has been received and it “worked far better than they expected.”

Altemus said they also were able to communicate with their commercial payloads. One that was of particular interest was EagleCam, a camera developed by students at the Space Technology Lab at his alma mater, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. It was supposed to detach from Odysseus just before landing, reaching the surface first and taking pictures of the landing. That wasn’t possible because of the software changes to the navigation system.

Today they were finally able to eject EagleCam from Odysseus and it landed about 4 meters away, but no imagery was returned either because the camera or its WiFi connection failed.  The students posted on X (@SpaceTechLab) that they are “incredibly proud to be the first university student-built payload on the Moon” and were “able to collect other data sets from the EagleCam system, and this data will be analyzed and published in the near future.”

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