15/07/2024

Following the unsuccessful attempt by Astrobotic’s Peregrine, Intuitive Machines has the opportunity to create history with its Nova-C lander.

Houston-based space company Intuitive Machines is set for an ambitious lunar mission at the end of this month. Their goal is to successfully land a spacecraft called Odysseus on the moon’s surface without any mishaps. This mission comes after Astrobotic’s failed attempt in January, where their lander, Peregrine, experienced a propellant leak, preventing it from reaching the moon. If Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission succeeds, it could mark the first-ever commercial moon landing.

Scheduled for February 22, the landing aims for the Malapert A crater near the moon’s south pole. The success of this mission depends on Odysseus, a Nova-C class lander, departing Earth on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket between February 14 and February 16, with the launch window opening at 12:57 AM ET on Wednesday.

Odysseus is the initial Nova-C lander in a series of three that Intuitive Machines plans to send to the moon this year. All landers will carry commercial payloads and NASA instruments under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Standing at 14 feet tall (4.3 meters), similar to a giraffe in size, Odysseus can transport approximately 280 pounds (130 kg) of cargo. If the soft landing is successful, its mission will be brief but potentially influential in gathering information for future expeditions, including NASA’s upcoming crewed Artemis missions. The lunar south pole is of particular interest due to the discovery of water ice, which could be crucial for astronaut sustenance and fuel, making it a key area for human exploration.

The solar-powered spacecraft and its functional equipment are anticipated to operate for approximately one week before the onset of the lunar night, a 14-day period of extreme cold and darkness rendering the lander inoperable. During this operational phase, various instruments will collect data at the lunar surface. In 2019, NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a $77 million contract for payload delivery, with six NASA instruments on board Odysseus.

Among these instruments is the Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), which will serve as a permanent marker on the moon to aid incoming spacecraft in determining their distance from the surface. Additionally, the Navigation Doppler LIDAR for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) will measure velocity and altitude to enhance descent guidance, while the Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1) will support communication and autonomous navigation in future missions.

NASA’s scientific instruments include those studying surface plumes generated during the landing, radio waves, and space weather effects. The Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS) will capture images of dust plumes, and the Radio wave Observation at the Lunar Surface of the photoElectron Sheath (ROLSES) instrument will investigate space weather impacts.

The remaining payloads on Odysseus are commercial, featuring Columbia Sportswear’s Apollo-inspired Omni-Heat Infinity thermal reflective material used to protect the cryogenic propulsion tank. Additionally, students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University developed the EagleCam camera system, designed to detach from the lander before touchdown, capturing a third-person perspective image of the moment. EagleCam also incorporates an experimental dust-removal system.

Even Jeff Koons sculptures are making their way to the moon, with both physical and NFT counterparts on Earth. In Koons’ Moon Phase creation, 125 small stainless steel sculptures depicting various phases of the moon are enclosed in a transparent cube crafted by 4Space. Each sphere is accompanied by the names of significant historical figures. The International Lunar Observatory Association, based in Hawaii, and Canadensys Aerospace are contributing a 1.3-pound dual-camera system called ILO-X, aiming to capture wide and narrow field images of the Milky Way from the lunar surface.

Odysseus is also transporting “Lunagrams,” small discs from Galactic Legacy Labs containing messages from Earth, encompassing text, images, audio, and archives from major databases like the Arch Mission Foundation and the English-language version of Wikipedia. Lonestar, an information technology company, plans to showcase its Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) by storing data on the lander and transmitting documents, including the US Declaration of Independence, between Earth and the moon. A prototype mini data center will follow on Intuitive Machines’ next launch.

The critical challenge now lies in ensuring the safe arrival of the Odysseus Nova-C lander on the lunar surface. The beginning of this year presented setbacks for moon missions, including the failure of Astrobotic’s Peregrine and a descent issue causing JAXA’s SLIM spacecraft to make an unexpected contact with the lunar surface (though it miraculously resumed functions to some extent after a few days). Intuitive Machines has additional opportunities for success with multiple missions already planned, but there can only be one private lander that claims the title of being the “first.”

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