Intuition Machines' Odysseus lander enters orbit around the Moon

A robotic spacecraft entered lunar orbit Wednesday, and a historic landing is scheduled for early Thursday morning, the first time a U.S. spacecraft will touch down on the moon's surface in more than 50 years.

The spacecraft, built by intuitive engines, was in “excellent health” based in Houston. The company said, orbiting the moon at an altitude of about 57 miles as it prepares to land on the moon at 5:49 p.m. ET Thursday. If successful, it would be the first commercial vehicle to land on the lunar surface and the first US spacecraft since Apollo 17 in 1972.

The mission is being carried out under a $118 million contract with NASA, which pays the agency to deliver six science and technology payloads to the moon. Intuitive Machines' 14-foot-tall Nova-C lander, named Odysseus, is one of several robotic spacecraft developed by the private sector that NASA hopes will land on the moon in the coming years, helping the space agency land astronauts. As part of its Artemis project.

Unlike the Apollo program, which sent astronauts to the moon's equatorial regions, Artemis aims to land at the moon's south pole, an unexplored yet fertile region where water, in the form of ice, resides in its permanently shadowed craters. Odysseus' landing site is near the crater Malabert A, named after the 17th-century Belgian astronomer, one of the landing sites being considered for the Artemis project.

Entering lunar orbit six days after liftoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida was a major milestone for Intuitive Machines.

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“The next day, when the lander is in lunar orbit, flight controllers will analyze the complete flight data and transmit images of the moon,” Intuitive Engines said. A post on X.

Landing, however, is a significant challenge. Last month, another commercial space company, Astrobotic, tried but failed to reach the moon when its spacecraft experienced engine trouble, resulting in a fuel leak. It has said it will try again, possibly early this year.

As it flies past the far side of the moon, Odysseus will lose contact with the ground for about 45 minutes. Each pass will be a challenge for the spacecraft, as it will alternate between the direct heat of the sun and the cold darkness behind the moon, which will require “heat extracted from batteries to keep its system warm,” the company said.

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 For onboard navigation systems, it can autonomously guide itself 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.

Odysseus also carries a NASA instrument designed to capture images of dust clouds kicked up by the spacecraft's engines. As the space agency hopes to eventually land multiple spacecraft closer together, it wants to better understand what effects the landings have on the lunar surface and environment.

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