Intuitive engines will launch the Odyssey lunar lander early Wednesday

NASA's Artemis program, the quest to eventually return astronauts to the lunar surface, is off to a perfect start. In January, the first attempt to land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface in more than 50 years was thwarted by a fuel leak that prevented the craft from reaching the moon. The next day, NASA announced that two of its main flights — one to send four crews around the moon and the other to land astronauts on it — would be significantly delayed while the space agency worked through technical problems.

But now, Intuitive Machines, a company in Houston, It plans to launch the spacecraft to the moon as early as Wednesday, setting up a possible landing later this month. If successful, it would be the first landing for the United States since the Apollo mission in 1972, and the first commercial spacecraft to touch the lunar surface. The company's phone-booth-sized lander, Odysseus, is aimed near the moon's south pole, which is of particular interest to NASA because of water ice in permanently shadowed craters.

Although the spacecraft is owned and operated by intuitive machines, NASA has many science experiments on board and is paying the company $118 million to deliver them to the surface. It's part of a $2.6 billion space agency plan designed to send privately-operated robotic spacecraft to the moon over the next few years to bolster the space agency's efforts to land astronauts.

The initiative demonstrates the growing role of the commercial space industry in space exploration. NASA now relies on contractors to fly cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, but also to build the spacecraft that will land the astronauts on the Moon and the spacesuits they will wear there. It also expects the corporate sector to develop habitats that could eventually replace the space station in Earth orbit.

The successful landing of a commercial vehicle on the moon would mark a significant milestone in space exploration by private enterprise, which NASA hopes will help unlock new economic and scientific activities on and around the moon. “By improving our capabilities to operate on the lunar surface, this mission sets the stage for ambitious efforts, including establishing lunar bases and exploring potential resources,” Intuition Machines said in a statement.

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All these are years away, and landing on the moon is very difficult. The spacecraft, built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, on its first flight to the moon's surface, suffered problems and a leak in its propulsion system last month, preventing it from reaching the lunar surface. Moments later, a spacecraft operated by the Japanese Space Agency gently landed, making Japan the fifth country to land on the moon's surface. But the spacecraft ended up on its side.

NASA's Moon program has also had some recent setbacks. The space agency had hoped to fly a quartet of astronauts around the moon later this year on its Orion spacecraft, a mission called Artemis II, similar to the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. But last month, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the flight would be delayed to September 2025 because the space agency needed to further examine Orion's heat shield, which showed more burning than expected.

Artemis III, the spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the surface, has been pushed back from 2025 to September 2026. This time, the problem is that SpaceX is delaying the construction of its Starship spacecraft, which is supposed to send crews. From the lunar surface. Nelson said there are also delays in developing the spacesuits astronauts will wear on the moon. Another private space company, Axiom Space, is leading that effort.

“I want to emphasize that safety is our priority,” NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free said during a briefing last month. “As we prepare to send our friends and colleagues on this mission, we are committed to launching as safely as possible. We will launch when we are ready.

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After an extensive test campaign, Intuitive Engines says it is ready to launch at 12:57 a.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, setting the landing nine days away.

“The vehicle is ready,” Stephen Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Engines, said in an interview in October. “It works fantastically. … We know the odds of what we're up against. We've done extensive testing beyond development testing to make sure the vehicle performs as designed. And from our reviews we believe we've ironed out all those issues and we know how the vehicle performs.

Odysseus will be launched into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., then speed toward the moon while making complex steps along the way. Once the spacecraft separates from the rocket, it will use special cameras to take pictures of the stars that allow it to orient itself in the right position so that its solar arrays point toward the Sun. Once activated, it will turn on its communications radios to communicate with controllers on the ground.

On its way to the moon, the spacecraft uses its propulsion system to keep it on course, “like a car driver making small turns with the steering wheel on a straight road.” The company said. It would aim for a spot close to the moon that would allow it to enter lunar orbit, similar to how basketball players aim for a square on the backboard of a hoop. “When a basketball player hits the backboard square with a shot, the ball tends to go into the hoop,” it said.

As it nears the moon, the spacecraft will fire its engine again, this time putting it into orbit about 62 miles above the lunar surface. The plan calls for it to orbit the moon about 12 times while waiting for the light to be just right on the lunar surface. Each pass will be a challenge for the spacecraft as it alternates between the warmth of the sun and the coolness of darkness, requiring “heat extracted from the batteries to keep the computers warm”. The spacecraft will lose contact with Earth for about 45 minutes each orbit when the moon blocks Odysseus' radio signal.

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As the vehicle begins its descent toward the surface, it will reduce its engine speed from 62 mph to just over six mph. Then its cameras and lasers Feed the data It will automatically guide the onboard navigation computers to a safe location on the surface. At about 100 feet, it flips itself to a vertical position, with the landing legs pointed down. During descent, engine thrust will continue to decrease as the lander burns fuel, resulting in lighter and lighter landing gear.

Because lunar dust kicks up as the vehicle approaches the surface, it won't use cameras or sensors for final touchdown, instead relying on what the company calls “inertial measurement,” which senses acceleration and rotation like a human's insides, the company said. the ear “Terminal descent is like walking toward a door and closing your eyes for the last three feet,” the company said. “You know you're close enough, but your inner ear has to guide you through the door.”

Landing speed is three feet per second. or about 2 miles.

Odysseus is carrying several science payloads from NASA, including an instrument that will capture images of dust plumes kicked up by the spacecraft's engines. Because it expects to eventually land many spacecraft closer together, NASA wants to better understand what effects the landings have on the lunar surface and environment.

It also has a camera system designed by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students and faculty that will be ejected from the spacecraft about 100 feet above the lunar surface to take pictures of the vehicle during its landing sequence.

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