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Cleared for landing: First privately-owned spacecraft to touch down on Moon

A moon lander built by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines has reached lunar orbit, heading for an attempt at the first touchdown on earth’s nearest celestial neighbour by a private spacecraft.

Feb 22, 2024, updated Feb 22, 2024
This image from video provided by SpaceX via NASA TV shows Intuitive Machines' lunar lander separating from the rocket's upper stage and heading toward the moon, on Feb. 15, 2024. (SpaceX -NASA TV via AP)

This image from video provided by SpaceX via NASA TV shows Intuitive Machines' lunar lander separating from the rocket's upper stage and heading toward the moon, on Feb. 15, 2024. (SpaceX -NASA TV via AP)

The six-legged Nova-C lander, dubbed Odysseus, entered a circular orbit 92km above the lunar surface after firing its main rocket thruster for nearly seven minutes in an orbital insertion manoeuvre, the company said in an online statement.

Assuming all goes according to plan, the robot spacecraft was expected to gradually lower its orbit over the next 24 hours and land at crater Malapert A near the moon’s south pole at 9.49am AEDT on Friday, carrying a suite of NASA science instruments and technology demonstrations.

Odysseus remains “in excellent health,” the company said, adding that for the duration of its lunar orbit roughly 384,000km from earth, mission controllers in Houston would monitor flight data from the spacecraft and transmit images of the moon.

Odysseus was launched six days ago, on February 15, atop a Falcon 9 rocket built and flown by Elon Musk’s California-based company SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

If the landing succeeds, the IM-1 mission would represent the first controlled descent to the lunar surface by a US spacecraft since Apollo 17, when NASA’s last crewed moon mission carried Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed there in 1972.

It also would mark the first “soft landing” on the moon ever by a commercially manufactured and operated vehicle and the first under NASA’s Artemis lunar program, as the US races to return astronauts to earth’s natural satellite before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there.

The IM-1 mission comes about a month after the lunar lander of another firm, Astrobotic Technology, suffered a propulsion system leak on its way to the moon shortly after being placed in orbit on January 8 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket making its debut flight.

The malfunction of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, which was also flying NASA payloads to the moon, was the third time a private company had failed to achieve a lunar touchdown, following ill-fated efforts by companies from Israel and Japan.

Those mishaps illustrated the risks NASA faces in leaning more heavily on the commercial sector than it had in the past to realise its spaceflight goals.

Although considered an Intuitive Machines mission, the IM-1 flight is carrying six NASA payloads of instruments designed to gather data about the lunar environment ahead of NASA’s planned first crewed Artemis mission to the moon later this decade.

Intuitive Machines was co-founded in 2013 by Stephen Altemus, former deputy director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and now the company’s president and CEO.

NASA announced last month that it was delaying its target date for a first crewed Artemis moon landing from 2025 to late 2026 while China has said it was aiming for 2030.

Small landers such as Nova-C are expected to get there first, carrying instruments to closely survey the lunar landscape, its resources and potential hazards.

Odysseus will focus on space weather interactions with the moon’s surface, radio astronomy, precision landing technologies and navigation.

To date, spacecraft from just five countries have ever landed on the moon – the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, India and, mostly recently just last month, Japan.

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