April 17th, 2024

Private US spacecraft is on its side on the moon, company says

By Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press on February 23, 2024.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – A private U.S. lunar lander tilted over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines, the company that built the six-footed lander, initially said the Odysseus lander was upright after touchdown Thursday. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface and tipped” and landed on its side, likely leaning on a rock.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over,” he said.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers ability to communicate and get the right data down, Altemus said.

He said the lander was “near or at its intended landing site.” The Houston company was shooting for the south polar region, near the Malapert A crater, closer to the pole than anyone else so NASA could scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

It was the first U.S. moon landing in more than 50 years since the Apollo era.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. The mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander’s navigation system failed in the final few hours before touchdown. The lander took an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA’s laser system.

“Odie is a scrapper,” mission director Tim Crain said late Thursday via X, formerly Twitter.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle’s Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

“Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just a week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander, before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA’s commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA’s famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA’s new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo’s mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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