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Second Private U.S. Moon Lander Readies for Launch

In the ancient Greek epic, Odyssey, The king of Ithaca, Odysseus, stubbornly navigates through treacherous waters to return home. As soon as this Valentine’s Day, a spacecraft of the same name will attempt its own perilous journey: the United States’ first soft landing on the Moon since 1972.

As early as 12:57 a.m. EST on February 14, a 14-foot-tall lunar lander built by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. That spacecraft, Nicknamed Odie (short for Odysseus), it will carry payloads ranging from NASA scientific instruments to a group of sculptures by artist Jeff Koons. Odie’s destination: a crater less than 200 miles from the lunar south pole.

This mission, called IM-1, flies under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which encourages private companies to take charge of sending scientific supplies and instruments to the Moon. Intuitive Machines is one of several companies aiming to be the first private company to soft-land a spacecraft on another celestial body.


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“We understand and welcome the responsibility of our IM-1 mission,” Intuitive Machines vice president of space systems Trent Martin said at a Jan. 31 press conference. “The hopes and dreams of our customers, employees, their families, our shareholders and lunar operations across the country are outlined and ready for launch.”

The mission is a major test for CLPS, which will pay up to $2.6 billion to private companies for lunar deliveries. NASA hopes to save a substantial amount of money through the program. In 2019, Intuitive Machines received a NASA contract for IM-1 that is now worth $118 million. That’s less than the agency would historically have spent to build its own lunar lander.

NASA also hopes CLPS will increase the frequency of robotic missions to the moon. IM-1 will be the second CLPS mission to launch, following Astrobotic’s Peregrine mission in January, and up to four more CLPS missions will launch before the end of the year. “The promise of high cadence is really what’s compelling,” says Michelle Munk, acting chief architect of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “The ability to have a payload, upgrade it, and fly it again, all in the span of a couple of years, is truly a unique opportunity.”

But in exchange for lower costs and faster turnaround times, NASA is allowing private companies to design and operate their own lunar landers, and the agency is taking on a greater risk that any CLPS mission will fail. Historically, only five out of nine lunar mission attempts have been successful. No commercial spacecraft has yet landed safely on another celestial body.

Last month, Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic launched its Peregrine lunar lander with a variety of NASA and non-NASA payloads, only for the spacecraft to suffer a critical anomaly shortly after launch. . Although Peregrine survived in space for a week and a half, he had lost too much fuel to attempt a moon landing. Instead, Astrobotic disposed of the spacecraft by having it re-enter and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

“What we have asked the industry to do, which is to soft land and operate on the surface of the moon, is not easy at all. It’s extremely difficult,” Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the Jan. 31 news conference.

Even lunar landing modules built by national space agencies have run into obstacles. On January 19, SLIM, a lander built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), reached the surface of the Moon intact and successfully deployed two rovers, making Japan the fifth country to conduct a soft landing on the surface of the Moon. SLIM landed at an angle that initially prevented sunlight from reaching its solar panels, but which limited its available power. SLIM went into inactive status on January 31before two weeks of dark and brutally cold lunar night.

Exploring the lunar south pole

At NASA’s request, IM-1 is targeting a landing site at Malapert A, a crater located in the moon’s south polar region that is close to a proposed landing site for the NASA satellite. Artemis III mission. If Odie lands successfully, IM-1 will mark only the second soft landing in the Moon’s south polar region, after India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission.

Odie will be the first version of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C class of lunar landers to launch. These landers are designed to carry up to 130 kilograms (287 pounds) of payload to the lunar surface. IM-1 will deliver six payloads on behalf of NASA, as well as a variety of private payloads.

One of NASA’s payloads on board, called SCALPSS (Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies), promises to deliver some of the best data of its kind since Apollo. It consists of four cameras surrounding the bottom of the lander and will take images of the vehicle’s exhaust plume as it interacts with the lunar surface during descent. After landing, SCALPSS will take two- and three-dimensional images of most of the area beneath Odie to map the crater created by the rocket plume. SCALPSS images should help inform simulations of larger-scale moon landings, such as those planned for NASA’s Artemis program.

“As we start putting more and more vehicles on the surface of the moon, we really want to understand how close they can land and what kind of protection the vehicles themselves or their assets may need in the future,” says Munk, who is also the person in charge of SCALPSS. principal investigator.

While SCALPSS watches Odie’s touchdown from below, an ambitious student-built payload will watch Odie from the side. EagleCam, built by a team of 26 students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is a small CubeSat that will launch from Odie when the lander is 30 meters (100 feet) above the lunar surface. The CubeSat will then free fall and crash into the lunar surface at about 10 meters per second (22 miles per hour).

No matter how the downed CubeSat is oriented after landing, the Embry-Riddle team hopes that at least one of the three wide-angle cameras on board will capture a view of Odie landing about 10 to 12 meters (33 to 39 feet) away. distance.

EagleCam hopes to capture a 360-degree view from the moon, including the first third-person images ever taken of a spacecraft landing on another celestial body. EagleCam also aims to conduct the first lunar demonstrations of Wi-Fi and an electric lens cleaning technology.

“We’re almost getting to the close of this project; we’re almost proving the science,” says Daniel Posada, Ph.D. candidate at Embry-Riddle and principal engineer at EagleCam. “But at the same time, we know the moon is tough.”

Other payloads point to the future of commercial Wild West space: where technical and marketing partnerships will merge during the development of new spacecraft.

To help control the lander’s internal temperature, some of Odie’s body panels are covered with Omni-Heat Infinity, an aluminum-dotted polyester developed by Columbia Sportswear for its jacket linings. Omni-Heat was originally inspired by the thin metal “space blankets” that NASA has used since the 1960s to insulate spacecraft. To fly Omni-Heat Infinity aboard Odie, Columbia and Intuitive Machines had to prove that both the material and the glue used to adhere it could withstand extreme temperature ranges and the vacuum of space.

“If it weren’t for this (CLPS) program, it’s not clear to me that companies like Columbia would be able to participate and help,” says Haskell Beckham, vice president of innovation at Columbia. “We’ve learned things that have come back and helped us do what we do.”

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