March 1, 2024

Intuitive Machines Odyssey lunar lander will launch on Wednesday

NASA’s Artemis program, the quest to eventually return astronauts to the surface of the Moon, is off to a shaky 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 spacecraft from reaching the Moon. The next day, NASA announced that two of its historic flights – one to send a crew of four around the Moon, the other to land astronauts on it – will be significantly delayed while the space agency resolves technical issues.

But now Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company, is planning to launch its spacecraft to the Moon on Wednesday morning, setting up a possible landing later this month. If successful, it would be the first United States landing since the last Apollo mission in 1972 and the first commercial spacecraft to land on the lunar surface. The company’s phone booth-sized lander, Odysseus, aims to get close to the Moon’s south pole, a region that is of particular interest to NASA due to the existence of water in the form of ice in its permanently shadowed craters. .

Although the spacecraft is owned and operated by Intuitive Machines, NASA has several scientific experiments on board and is paying the company $118 million to deliver them to the surface. The flight is part of a $2.6 billion space agency program designed to send a fleet of robotic spacecraft, operated not by NASA but by private industry, to the Moon over the next few years to bolster the attempt of the space agency to land astronauts there.

The effort demonstrates the growing role that the commercial space industry has taken on in space exploration. NASA now relies on contractors to not only transport cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, but also to develop the spacecraft that will take astronauts to the Moon and the spacesuits they will wear while there. It also hopes that the business sector will build the habitats that could eventually replace the space station in Earth’s orbit.

A successful landing of a commercial vehicle on the Moon would represent a significant milestone in private space exploration, which NASA hopes will ultimately help open up new economic and scientific activities on and around the Moon. “By enhancing our capabilities to operate on the lunar surface, the mission sets the stage for more ambitious endeavors, including establishing lunar bases and exploring potential resources,” Intuitive Machines said in a statement.

All of this is still years away and landing on the Moon is extremely difficult. In the first of the unmanned flights to the lunar surface, a spacecraft developed by Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company, suffered a problem with its propulsion system last month and developed a leak, preventing it from reaching the lunar surface. Shortly afterwards, a spacecraft operated by the Japanese space agency touched down softly, making Japan the fifth country to land on the lunar surface. But the spacecraft ended up on its side.

NASA’s lunar program has also had some recent setbacks. The space agency had expected a quartet of astronauts to fly around the Moon in its Orion spacecraft later this year, a mission, known as Artemis II, that would be somewhat similar to the Apollo 8 flight in 1968. But last month, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the flight will be delayed until September 2025 because the space agency needs to further study Orion’s heat shield, which has shown more charring than anticipated.

Artemis III, the flight that will transport astronauts to the surface, has also been delayed from 2025 to no earlier than September 2026. This time, the problem is delays in the development of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, which was supposed to transport the crew to and from the surface. lunar. Nelson said there are also delays in developing the spacesuits that astronauts will wear on the Moon. That effort is being led by Axiom Space, another private space company.

“I want to emphasize that safety is our number one 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. And we will launch when we are ready.”

Intuitive Machines says that after an extensive testing campaign, it is ready to launch at 12:57 pm ET on Wednesday, setting up a landing about nine days later.

“The vehicle is ready,” said Stephen Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, in an interview in October. “It’s performing wonderfully. … We know the probabilities of what we face. We perform extensive testing in addition to development testing to ensure the vehicle is performing as designed. And we are confident that after our analyses, we have resolved all of these issues and know how the vehicle behaves.”

Odysseus will be transported into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and then speed toward the Moon while passing through complicated stages along the way. Once the spacecraft separates from the rocket, it will use special cameras to capture images of stars that will allow it to autonomously orient itself into the correct position so that its solar panels point toward the sun. Once powered on, it will turn on its communications radios to make contact with controllers on the ground.

On the way to the Moon, the spacecraft will use its propulsion system to make course corrections and keep it on track, “like a car driver making small adjustments to the steering wheel along a straight stretch of road,” the company said. . He will aim for a location near the moon that will allow him to enter lunar orbit, similar to the way basketball players aim for the square on the hoop backboard. “If a basketball player hits the backboard with a shot, the ball is more likely to go into the hoop,” he said.

As it approaches the Moon, the probe will restart its engine, this time to place it in an orbit about 100 kilometers above the lunar surface. The plan calls for it to orbit the Moon approximately 12 times while waiting for lighting conditions to be suitable on the lunar surface. Each pass will also pose a challenge for the spacecraft as it alternates between the heat of the sun and the cold of darkness, which will require “heat drawn from the batteries to keep the systems warm.” The spacecraft will lose communications with the ground for about 45 minutes in each orbit when the moon blocks Odysseus’ radio signal.

As the vehicle begins to descend toward the surface, it fires the engine and drops from 62 miles to just over six miles. Its cameras and lasers will then provide data to onboard navigation computers that will autonomously guide it to a safe location on the surface. At about 30 meters, it will turn to an upright position with its landing legs pointed downwards. During descent, engine thrust will continually decrease as the lander burns fuel and, as a result, becomes increasingly lighter.

Because lunar dust will increase as the rover approaches the surface, it will not use cameras or sensors for the final landing, instead relying on what the company calls “inertial measurement,” which the company says , detects acceleration and rotation like the inside of a human being. ear. “The descent from the terminal is like walking towards a door and closing your eyes for the last three meters,” said the company. “You know you’re close enough, but your inner ear should guide you through the door.”

The landing speed will be about one meter per second, or about 2 mph.

Odysseus is carrying several NASA science payloads, including an instrument that will capture images of the dust cloud kicked up by the spacecraft’s engines. As it envisions multiple spacecraft landing close together, NASA wants to better understand what effects the landings have on the Moon’s surface and environment.

It also carries a camera system designed by students and faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University that will be ejected from the spacecraft about 100 feet above the moon’s surface to take images of the vehicle during the landing sequence.

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