Houston-based space company Intuitive Machines is gearing up for a real moonshot later this month when it tries to land a spacecraft called Odysseus on the moon’s surface — ideally without disruption in the process. The mission follows Astrobotic’s failed attempt in January; that company’s lander, Peregrine, never reached the Moon due to a fuel leak that cut its journey short. Means Peregrine’s failure IM-1 of Intuitive Machines if the mission gets there intact, it could be the first commercial moon landing.
Intuitive Machines hopes to launch a landing attempt on February 22 by striking the Malapert A crater near the Moon’s south pole. That arrival date depends on Odysseus, one of the company’s Nova-C-class landers, leaving Earth atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket between February 14 and February 16. The release window opens at 12:57 PM ET on Wednesday.
Odysseus is the first plans for three Nova-C landers Intuitive Machines All will be sent to the Moon this year, carrying commercial payloads and NASA instruments as contracted under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. At 14 feet (4.3 meters) tall, the lander is about the size of a giraffe and can carry about 280 pounds (130 kg) of cargo. Its mission, if it can make a soft landing, will be brief but potentially valuable in informing future excursions to the region, including NASA’s upcoming crewed Artemis missions. Orbiting probes have found evidence of water ice on the Moon’s south pole, which could be used for habitation and even fuel, making it an area of high interest for human exploration.
The solar-powered craft and any functional equipment it carries are expected to be operational only about a week before the start of lunar night, when 14 days of cold darkness will render the lander inoperable, the company said. But when everything is up and running, various tools will collect data on the surface. NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a $77 million contract to deliver its payloads in 2019, and there are now six NASA instruments cruising aboard Odysseus.
According to NASA, the Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) will “act as a permanent landmark” from its position on the Moon after landing, helping incoming spacecraft determine their distance from the surface. The lander also has a Navigation Doppler LIDAR for the Precision Velocity and Range Sensor (NDL), a sensor that measures speed and altitude to better guide the descent, and a Lunar Node 1 Navigation Indicator (LN-1) to support communications and autonomous navigation. in future missions.
NASA is also sending instruments to study surface plumes—anything that rises into the air when the lander touches down—along with the effects of radio waves and space weather. This includes the Stereo Cameras for Lunar Surface Studies (SCALPSS), which will capture images of these dust plumes, and the photoelectron shell (ROLSES) radio wave observation of the lunar surface.
The remaining payloads on board Odysseus are commercial in nature. According to Intuitive Machines, Columbia Sportswear worked with Intuitive Machines to incorporate the brand’s Apollo-inspired Omni-Heat Infinity thermal reflective material. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students have developed a camera system called EagleCam that will try to separate the lander before it hits the ground and capture a third-person view of the moment. EagleCam is also equipped with an experimental dust removal system.
There are even some Jeff Koons sculptures going to the moon that will have physical and NFT counterparts on Earth. In Koons’ Moon Phase, 125 small stainless steel moon sculptures in various phases are placed inside a transparent cube designed by 4Space, with the names of important historical figures from around the world below each sphere. The Hawaii-based International Association of Lunar Observatories and Canadansys Aerospace are sending a 1.3-pound dual-camera system called ILO-X that will attempt to capture wide- and narrow-field images of the Milky Way from the Moon.
Odysseus also carries small discs called “Lunagrams” from Galactic Legacy Labs. These discs contain text, images, audio and archives from major databases such as Messages from Earth, including the Arch Mission Foundation and the English-language version of Wikipedia. Similar archival material was sent into space with Peregrine last month. Information technology company Lonestar plans to demonstrate its Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) by storing data and transferring documents (including the US Declaration of Independence) on the lunar lander. He will follow this up with a prototype mini data center in the next release of Intuitive Machines.
Now the pressure is on for the Odysseus Nova-C lander to reach the lunar surface safely. This year has gotten off to a rocky start for lunar missions, with the failure of Astrobotic’s Peregrine and landing hiccups that caused JAXA’s SLIM spacecraft to land on the lunar surface (although the latter can miraculously restore its functions to some extent after a few days). Intuitive Machines will have other chances to get it right, if not this time – it already has multiple missions booked – but only one personal lander can be “first”.