Private sector lunar lander launched on historic moon mission

By | February 15, 2024

To light up the deep night sky, a Falcon 9 rocket thundered away from Florida early Thursday, boosting a commercially built robotic lander on a flight to the moon. If successful, it will be the first American spacecraft to reach the moon’s surface in more than fifty years.

It was SpaceX’s second flight in less than eight hours, following the launch of six U.S. Space Force missile detection and tracking satellites Wednesday evening. Additionally, a Russian space station cargo ship departed from Kazakhstan late Wednesday EST.

A camera on the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket captures a spectacular scene as Intuitive Machine's Odysseus lunar lander takes off on its own 48 minutes after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center.  If all goes well, the commercial lander will land near the moon's south pole next Thursday, becoming the first U.S. vehicle on the moon in more than 50 years.  /Credit: SpaceXA camera on the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket captures a spectacular scene as Intuitive Machine's Odysseus lunar lander takes off on its own 48 minutes after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center.  If all goes well, the commercial lander will land near the moon's south pole next Thursday, becoming the first U.S. vehicle on the moon in more than 50 years.  /Credit: SpaceX

A launch of another Falcon 9 scheduled for Wednesday, carrying a batch of 22 Starlinks, from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base was canceled without explanation.

But the Florida moonshot brought a busy day in space to a spectacular end with a perfect launch Thursday at 1:05 a.m. EST, five weeks after another commercial lander built by Pittsburg-based Astrobotic suffered a failure near the end of the mission.

Thursday’s launch went off without a hitch, and Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lander was released to fly on its own 48 minutes after launch. If all goes well, the spacecraft will enter orbit around the moon and descend to the surface next Thursday, where it will land about 300 kilometers from the moon’s south pole.

The flight, funded in part by NASA, is a pioneer of sorts for the agency’s Artemis program, which plans to send astronauts to the moon’s south polar region in the coming years. NASA instruments aboard Odysseus will study the lunar environment and test necessary technologies for downstream missions.

To reach its landing site, Odysseus will rely on a powerful 3D-printed main engine that burns liquid oxygen and methane as propellants, a first for a deep space mission. Problems loading the lander with properly cooled methane forced SpaceX to order a 24-hour launch delay, but there were no known problems Thursday.

Odysseus is carrying six NASA instruments and another six commercial payloads, including sculptures, proof-of-concept cloud storage technology, insulation blankets supplied by Columbia Sportswear and a student-built camera package that will drop to the surface ahead of the lander to take its final photo to make. origin.

NASA’s experiments include an instrument to study the environment of charged particles on the moon’s surface and another instrument that will test navigation technologies and downward-facing stereo cameras designed to photograph how the lander’s engine exhaust disturbs the soil at the landing site .

An artist's impression of the Odysseus lander on the moon's surface.  /Credit: Intuitive MachinesAn artist's impression of the Odysseus lander on the moon's surface.  /Credit: Intuitive Machines

An artist’s impression of the Odysseus lander on the moon’s surface. /Credit: Intuitive Machines

Also on board: an innovative sensor that will use radio waves to accurately determine how much cryogenic propellant is left in a tank in the weightless environment of space, technology that is expected to prove useful for future moon missions and other deep space travel.

Odysseus and his experiments are expected to last about a week on the moon’s surface before the sun sets on the landing site, cutting off solar energy. The spacecraft is not designed to survive the extremely low temperatures of the two-week lunar night.

Only the United States, Russia, China, India and Japan have placed landers on the moon’s surface, and Japan’s membership in that exclusive club comes with an asterisk: the ‘SLIM’ lander tipped during the touchdown on January 19 and failed to achieve all mission objectives.

Between 2019 and last January, three privately funded lunar landers were launched, one from an Israeli nonprofit, one from a Japanese company and Astrobotic’s ill-fated Peregrine. All three failed.

Peregrine and Odysseus were both funded in part by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS (pronounced CLIPS), designed to encourage private industry to develop transportation capabilities that NASA can then use to ferry payloads to the moon.

The agency’s goal is to boost the development of new technologies and collect data that will be needed for Artemis astronauts who want to land near the moon’s south pole later this decade.

The agency spent about $108 million for its part in the Peregrine mission and another $129 million for the Odysseus instruments and transport to the moon.

A graphical representation of the Odysseus lander's maneuvers en route to landing near the moon's south pole.  /Credit: Intuitive MachinesA graphical representation of the Odysseus lander's maneuvers en route to landing near the moon's south pole.  /Credit: Intuitive Machines

A graphical representation of the Odysseus lander’s maneuvers en route to landing near the moon’s south pole. /Credit: Intuitive Machines

“These are not NASA missions, they are commercial missions,” said Susan Lederer, CLPS project scientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “These commercial companies will take our instruments and enable our research by supplying us with power, data and (communications).

“The commercial sector brings with it a competitive environment, which means that our investments ultimately yield much more for much less. So instead of one mission in ten years, ten commercial missions to the moon in ten years are possible.”

The launch of Intuitive Machines capped off a busy day for SpaceX.

At 5:30 p.m., a Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carrying four missile tracking satellites for the Space Development Agency and two hypersonic threat detection satellites for the Missile Defense Agency.

A Falcon 9 launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carried six missile detection and tracking satellites into orbit for the US Space Force in a prelude to the moonshot early Thursday.  /Credit: William Harwood/CBS NewsA Falcon 9 launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carried six missile detection and tracking satellites into orbit for the US Space Force in a prelude to the moonshot early Thursday.  /Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

A Falcon 9 launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carried six missile detection and tracking satellites into orbit for the US Space Force in a prelude to the moonshot early Thursday. /Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

The two MDA satellites are designed to continuously track ultra-fast missiles or other threats and relay them to other satellites or ground systems for targeted targeting. They will operate in the same orbit as the SDA tracking satellites to help planners assess how to manage threats at multiple levels.

The four SDA tracking satellites were the final members of a 27-satellite constellation deployed by the SDA in “tranche 0” of its “proliferative warfighter space architecture.” Additional satellites will be launched in the coming years to fill additional tranches, or constellations of increasingly capable spacecraft.

The $4.5 billion US Space Force program aims to deploy hundreds of small, laser-linked tracking and data relay satellites, spread across multiple constellations and orbital planes, to provide global coverage that is less vulnerable to attack.

With the Space Force flight safely underway, SpaceX engineers on the West Coast attempted to launch 22 Starlink Internet satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base northwest of Los Angeles. But SpaceX canceled that flight at the end of the launch window.

On the other side of the planet, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Russian engineers launched the freighter Progress MS-26/67P at 10:25 PM EST, beginning a two-day flight to the International Space Station.

Progress is loaded with 5,500 pounds of cargo, including 3,258 pounds of dry goods, 1,279 pounds of space station propellant and 926 pounds of water. Docking at the station’s Zvezda module is expected at 1:26 a.m. EST on Saturday.

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