SpaceX launches intuitive Nova-C Moon Lander machines

SpaceX launches intuitive Nova-C Moon Lander machines

Another month, another attempt at the moon.

A robotic lunar lander was launched into space early Thursday morning. If all goes well, in nine days it will become the first American spacecraft to softly touch down on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972.

It would also become the first private effort to reach the surface of the moon in one piece. Three previous attempts, by an American company, a Japanese company and an Israeli nonprofit, failed.

The company in charge of this mission, Intuitive Machines of Houston, is optimistic.

“I feel pretty confident that we will make a soft landing on the Moon,” Stephen Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, said in an interview. “We have done the tests. We test, test and test. All the tests we could do.”

If private companies can accomplish this feat, at a much lower cost than a traditional NASA mission, it will open the door to broader NASA exploration of the Moon and commercial initiatives.

“We’re trying to create a market in a place where one didn’t exist,” Joel Kearns, an official with NASA’s science mission directorate, said during a news conference Tuesday. “But to do that, we have to do it at a costconscious way.”

NASA is the primary customer for this mission and paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to take care of its payloads, which include a stereo camera to observe the plume of dust kicked up during landing and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals, for the surface of the moon. There’s also cargo from clients other than NASA, such as a camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and an art project by Jeff Koons.

But if these private efforts continue to fail, then NASA won’t get its money’s worth.

The mission had a quiet and auspicious start.

At 1:05 a.m. ET, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the lander lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the lander on a direct trajectory toward the moon. Intuitive Machines reported less than an hour later that the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s second stage and successfully ignited with its systems working as expected.

Intuitive Machines calls its spacecraft design Nova-C. It is a hexagonal cylinder with six landing legs, about 14 feet high and 5 feet wide. Intuitive Machines notes that the lander’s body is about the size of an old British telephone booth, i.e. like the Tardis in the science fiction TV show “Doctor Who.”

At launch, with a full load of propellant, the lander weighed about 4,200 pounds.

This particular spaceship was named Odysseus after a contest among Intuitive Machines employees. Mario Romero, the engineer who proposed the name, said the travels of the hero of the “Odyssey,” the ancient Greek epic poem, provided an apt analogy for the lunar mission.

“This journey is taking much longer due to numerous challenges, setbacks and delays,” Romero said in Intuitive Machine’s press kit for the mission. “Traveling across the intimidating wine-colored sea repeatedly tests his mettle, but Odysseus ultimately proves worthy and returns home after 10 years.”

After a week of travel away from Earth, Odysseus will enter orbit around the Moon about 62 miles above the surface. Then, 24 hours later, he will start his engine to begin his final descent. An hour later, he is deposited near a crater called Malapert A, about 185 miles from the south pole. The landing site is relatively flat, a place that is easier for a spacecraft to land.

The south polar region, especially the craters that remain in perpetual shadow, has become an area of ​​interest due to the presence of water ice there. Previous US lunar missions have landed in equatorial regions.

After landing, Odysseus will operate for seven days until the sun sets. The solar-powered lander is not designed to survive the bitter cold of the lunar night.

The launch of the Intuitive Machines mission comes just a month after another American company, Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, attempted to send Peregrine, its lander, to the Moon. But a malfunction of its propulsion system shortly after launch prevented any chance of landing. Ten days later, as Peregrine spun back toward Earth, it burned up in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

Both Odysseus and Peregrine are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. The goal of the program is to use commercial companies to send experiments to the moon instead of NASA building and operating its own lunar landing modules.

The space agency hopes this approach will be much cheaper, allowing it to send more missions more frequently as it prepares to send astronauts back to the moon as part of its Artemis program.

Thomas Zurbuchen, a former NASA associate administrator for science who started the CLPS program in 2018, said the space agency expected half of CLPS missions to fail and that it repeatedly told Congress, scientists and companies to expect that. . “That’s how it was sold,” he said in an interview.

But even if half of these commercial missions fail, NASA would still come out ahead because a traditional mission costs between $500 million and $1 billion, Dr. Zurbuchen said, while on a CLPS mission, NASA pays a company about 100 million dollars to fly its payloads. .

Even a 50 percent success rate might be too optimistic. “Even if you are a supporter of this, you need to see if that strategy is working,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.

Altemus, who spent six years as director of engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the drive to cut costs has spurred a much faster pace of innovation than was possible at NASA.

“Innovation that would not have occurred if we had more money and more time,” he said. “If you look at all the milestones leading up to the moon landing, and all the technical achievements we’ve been able to achieve for that small amount of money, it’s just amazing.”

The most difficult part of the mission, the landing, is still ahead.

Altemus admitted that they needed to make decisions that reduced costs but increased risks.

“Now, have we become too stingy?” said Mr. Altemus. “Possibly.”

If so, CLPS companies may need to raise prices for future missions, although they would still be cheaper than what NASA traditionally did. Altemus said that if Intuitive Machines fails this time, NASA and Congress should not give up on the idea of ​​a moon on a limited budget.

“It’s the only way to really move forward,” Altemus said.

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John C. Johnson

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