Odysseus Sends Back Lunar Images

Odysseus Sends Back Lunar Images

Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander has sent back images days after tipping over while landing near the Moon’s South Pole. The U.S. company was not sure precisely where Odysseus set down because of problems with the navigation system, but it now has been spotted by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Odysseus is the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the Moon since 1972 and the company expected operations to continue for at least 7 days, but said today it will lose contact tomorrow after just 5 days.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines (IM) is one of several companies with contracts as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to deliver payloads to the surface of the Moon through Public-Private Partnerships. The companies design, build and own the landers and procure launch services. NASA buys delivery services and the company is expected to find non-NASA customers to close the business case. NASA paid IM $118 million to deliver six payloads, which cost another $11 million.

Six non-NASA payloads also are onboard.

Odysseus is the first of IM’s Nova-C class lunar landers, one of a new type that are less robust, but also less expensive than those launched by the Soviet Union and United States in the 1960s and 1970s and China more recently. NASA’s goal is to stimulate a commercial lunar services industry to deliver science and technology experiments and eventually other supplies in support of the Artemis program of long-term sustainable human and robotic exploration of the Moon.

NASA acknowledges that CLPS is higher risk than many NASA programs and a 50-50 success rate is acceptable. The first CLPS mission, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, failed last month because of a propulsion anomaly.

IM’s mission has not been trouble-free either. Technicians forgot to enable the laser altimeter navigation system before launch. Fortuitously, one of the six NASA payloads aboard was a test of a Navigation Doppler Lidar and they were able to send a software patch to tell the spacecraft’s computers to use that instead of the primary system.

Odysseus landed on February 22 as planned, but not at its intended location in the Malapert-A crater. More importantly, it is laying on its side with some of the communications antennas pointing down into the surface. That has complicated getting back data and imagery, but today IM posted images taken while Odysseus was descending to the surface.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the Moon since 2009, spotted Odysseus on the surface so IM now knows exactly where it is: 80.13°S and 1.44°E. That’s 1.5 kilometers from its intended landing site. The goal was to land within 100 meters.

NASA added that it is “within a degraded one-kilometer diameter crater where the local terrain is sloped at 12 degrees.”

Based on available telemetry, IM believes Odysseus is on its side perhaps leaning on a rock as demonstrated during a news conference on Friday by IM CEO Steve Altemus.

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 do not know for sure, though.  A small camera, EagleCam, designed and built by students at Embry-Riddle University’s Space Technology Lab, is attached to Odysseus. It was intended to separate during descent and land before Odysseus and take pictures of the landing, but that was not possible because of the problem with the navigation system. They are working now to figure out how to eject it and get back images that will show exactly what position Odysseus is in.

The Embry-Riddle team posted on X this afternoon (@SpaceTechLab) that “using backup hardware and copies of software, we have rewritten processes and procedures for deployment given our best estimate of configuration. We remain excited to demonstrate EagleCam’s capabilities.”

They are racing against the clock, though. IM has shortened the expected operational lifetime. Initially they said Odysseus would work for 7 days on the surface. During Friday’s press conference, IM Chief Technology Officer Tim Crain estimated as many as 9-10 days. In a press release on Friday, NASA said February 29.

Today, however, IM posted on X that they “believe flight controllers will continue to communicate with Odysseus until Tuesday morning,” which is tomorrow.

They did not explicitly explain why, but noted they would “collect data until the lander’s solar panels are no longer exposed to light,” suggesting they are not pointed in an optimal direction. Not only is the lander in an unexpected attitude, it is close to the Moon’s South Pole where lighting conditions are different than regions closer to the equator where most spacecraft have landed.

Whatever the outcome, Odysseus is in the history books already as the first time a U.S. spacecraft landed on the Moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972, the first successful commercial lander instead of one built by a government space agency, and the closest landing to the South Pole.

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