Sunday, April 14, 2024

Odysseus completes first U.S. lunar landing in 50 years

(Al Jazeera Media Network) The Odysseus lunar lander has made the first United States landing on the moon in more than 50 years, in what has been described as similar to a “cargo mission”.

The moment marks the first successful landing of a commercial spacecraft on the moon, following an unsuccessful US lunar lander mission last month.

The last craft launched from the U.S. to land on the Moon’s surface was Apollo 17 in 1972.

Odysseus, also known as “Odie”, is a type of lunar lander designed by Intuitive Machines, a commercial lunar missions group that has the goal of delivering small “payloads” to the surface of the Moon.

For this mission, during which the environment at one of the Moon’s poles will be investigated, NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million under a program known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS).

According to EVONA, a space industry recruiter, “a payload is the part of a spacecraft that is responsible for achieving the mission’s primary objectives … [they] can be scientific instruments, communication equipment, or any other specialised equipment that is needed for the mission”.

This model of lunar lander is called a Nova-C. Intuitive Machines reportedly described it as roughly the size of a British telephone booth with legs attached. According to NASA, it is a hexagonal cylinder with dimensions of 4 metres tall and 1.57 metres wide.

The lander is equipped with five NASA payloads and one commercial one – a total of 100 kilograms.

NASA’s cargo consists of exploration and other equipment. “The NASA payloads will focus on demonstrating communication, navigation, and precision landing technologies, and gathering scientific data about rocket plume and lunar surface interactions, as well as space weather and lunar surface interactions affecting radio astronomy,” the space agency said in a statement.

According to Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, this is similar to a cargo mission.

“NASA pays a company to take our equipment, our science, to the Moon all the way down to the surface and get our data back,” Kearns told Al Jazeera.

“But this is the company’s mission, they go off and make their lander, they buy a rocket, they design their mission, they get all their communications set up, we are just a paying cargo customer, just as if we were shipping a parcel to somebody’s house,” he added.

Odysseus landed at 6:23 pm EST (23:23 GMT) on Thursday.

It was launched by SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on February 15, using a Falcon 9 rocket launcher.

Falcon 9 propelled the lander into Earth’s orbit, reaching speeds of more than 40,000km per hour. Once the rocket depleted its fuel after 48 minutes – about 223 km above the Earth – it separated from Odie, leaving the lunar lander to navigate independently through space. The lander used an onboard stellar map to establish its orientation in space, aligning its solar panels with the Sun’s rays to recharge its batteries.

If its mission doesn’t face any setbacksthe hexagonal solar-powered lander will spend seven days operating on the moon, working until the sun sets each lunar day. When the lunar night sets in, the lander will enter sleep mode.

After a journey of roughly 400,000 km, the lander began a 73-minute descent to the surface of the Moon on Thursday. Intuitive Machines CEO Stephen Altemus said at the start of the mission that the spacecraft had about an 80 percent chance of success.

During the mission, controllers faced a potentially mission-halting technical issue.

In the few hours before the landing, the craft’s laser navigation system failed, according to The Associated Press. The Intuitive Machines’ flight control team had to rely on an experimental NASA laser system that was on board instead – the Navigation Doppler Lidar. The lander had to make an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the late switch.

“We put the Navigation Doppler Lidar … as a tech demo and as a test. We weren’t planning to use it for the actual mission … but now we are. So, basically, it is the primary system to help provide the velocity and altitude information,” NASA’s Space Tech mission directorate deputy associate administrator Prasun Desai said.

Following the successful landing by Odysseus, however, initially there was no signal from the moon lander.

As the minutes passed, there were initial concerns about the lander’s status but eventually a communications link between the lander and the control team on Earth was established. Within a couple of hours, Intuitive Machines had reported that “Odysseus [was] upright and starting to send data,” and was able to show images.

As well as delivering its payloads, the lunar lander is designed to evaluate the environment at the Moon’s south pole as NASA prepares to send a crewed mission in September 2026 with Artemis III.

The moon’s southern polar region is believed to contain abundant water ice. Prior to deploying astronauts to this area, however, the agency wants to gather additional data. This information will help evaluate factors such as the quantity of water present and the accessibility of this vital resource.

NASA’s aim is to establish a permanent lunar base for human voyagers and, eventually, a launching point for Mars.

“The goal here is for us to investigate the moon in preparation for Artemis, and really to do business differently for NASA,” said Sue Lederer, commercial lunar payload services project scientist at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“One of our main goals is to make sure that we develop a lunar economy,” she added, referring to NASA’s ambition to build a market in which privately owned companies compete to be part of the journey.

“There is so much more that we have to learn about the moon,” Ali Bramson, a planetary scientist from Purdue University told Al Jazeera. “Everything from how it formed, to the technologies needed, to how people survive on the surface of the Moon, so much science and technology that we still have to learn at the Moon,” she added.

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