Advertisement

Historic Odysseus moon mission marks a milestone in reaching the lunar surface

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.

Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lander, also called Odysseus or “Odie,” is on the lunar surface after experiencing unexpected issues hours prior to landing.

“I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface, and we are transmitting,” Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus announced on a live webcast. “Welcome to the moon.”

The company was able to confirm that mission control received signals from the lunar surface shortly after landing. But it wasn’t until two hours later that Intuitive Machines shared that the spacecraft was “upright and starting to send data,” according to an update from the company on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In yet another update Friday morning, Intuitive Machines revealed the spacecraft was “alive and well” and mission controllers were seeking to download science data from the vehicle.

“We continue to learn more about the vehicle’s specific information (Lat/Lon), overall health, and attitude (orientation),” the company said in its update, adding that more information is expected at a news conference on Friday afternoon.

The spacecraft’s position has been a key question since touchdown on Thursday evening, as communications issues became an immediate concern and flight controllers indicated they were getting weak signals from the vehicle.

And while Intuitive Machines said it is also working to process images from Odysseus’ cameras, the company has not yet shared any pictures from the landing.

Still, the spacecraft has already accomplished a historic feat, becoming the first commercial spacecraft to soft-land on the moon, and the first US-made vehicle to touch down on the lunar surface since the Apollo program ended more than five decades ago. This mission is of key interest to Intuitive Machines’ primary customer, NASA, which is seeking to scout the moon using robotic explorers developed by private contractors before sending astronauts there later this decade through its Artemis program.

“Today for the first time in more than a half-century, the US has returned to the moon,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships. Congratulations to everyone involved in this great and daring quest.”

A ‘dynamic situation’

Odysseus landed at 6:23 p.m. ET Thursday, according to Intuitive Machines, after using its methane-fueled, onboard engine to steer itself toward the cratered surface and rapidly reduce its speed by 4,000 miles per hour (1,800 meters per second).

In a dramatic twist, Intuitive Machines revealed a couple of hours before landing that an apparent issue with Odysseus’ navigation systems forced the lander to rely on experimental technology, resulting in a “dynamic situation,” according to Gary Jordan, a NASA communications manager.

“Intuitive Machines made the decision to reassign the primary navigation sensors from Odysseus … to use the sensors on NASA’s Navigation Doppler Lidar (or NDL),” according to the webcast.

The Lidar payload is an experimental technology that NASA paid to test fly on the mission. It was not intended to serve a functional purpose. But engineers were able to rapidly patch in an update to bypass Odysseus’ own malfunctioning equipment and make use of the experimental NASA lidar. The NDL is designed to shoot laser beams to the ground to give exact measurements of speed and direction of flight, according to Farzin Amzajerdian, NASA’s principal investigator for the instrument.

Quickly shifting gears allowed the mission to move forward, defying the odds.

The IM-1 mission comes amid a renewed international dash for the lunar surface. Since the end of the Soviet-US space race of the 20th century, China, India and Japan have all landed spacecraft on the moon — with the latter two making their first touchdowns within the past six months.

The phone booth-size Odysseus lander spent the past week in space, traveling about 620,370 miles (1 million kilometers) through the void before placing itself in lunar orbit on Wednesday morning. A model of the spacecraft is seen below.

What Odysseus is bringing to the moon

Intuitive Machines aimed to land Odysseus near Malapert A, an impact crater close to the moon’s south pole — an area characterized by treacherous and rocky terrain.

Malapert A is a region that’s relatively flat in comparison with its surroundings, according to NASA. And the location is strategic: The south pole is of broad international interest because it’s suspected to be home to stores of water ice, which could be converted to drinking water or even rocket fuel for future missions.

In addition to NASA’s lidar paylaod, five other science instruments from the space agency were tucked on board Odysseus as part of Intuitive Machines’ contract with NASA, valued at up to $118 million.

“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,” according to the space agency.

Odysseus is expected to operate for up to seven days on the lunar surface before the landing site is plunged into lunar night, with freezing temperatures rending the vehicle inoperable.

Art and technology from the commercial sector are also on board. They include insulation material developed by Columbia Sportswear, designed to shield Odysseus from the harsh temperatures on the moon, and commemorative payloads such as a sculpture of the moon phases designed in consultation with artist Jeff Koons.

Odysseus passes over the near side of the moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21. - Intuitive Machines/NASA/X
Odysseus passes over the near side of the moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21. - Intuitive Machines/NASA/X

Additionally, there was a camera along for the ride developed by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. The device, called EagleCam, was set to pop off the lander and capture a selfie of Odysseus, and the university confirmed on Thursday that the payload made it to the surface in one piece. It was not clear as of Friday morning when or if images would become available.

The odds of success

This mission comes after another commercial NASA partner, Astrobotic Technology, waved off its attempt to land on the moon hours into its mission last month. A critical fuel leak left the Peregrine lander without enough gas to reach the surface.

“We’re going 1,000 times further (into space) than the International Space Station,” Altemus, the Intuitive Machines CEO, said before Odysseus’ launch. “Then we’re flying to an orbiting body that has no atmosphere to slow down (the spacecraft). … It all has to be done with a propulsion system. And we’re doing it autonomously or robotically with no intervention from humans.”

Especially with competition from China, the US is anxious to regain a presence on the moon. NASA aims to carry out robotic science missions, seeking to learn more about the lunar environment through private partners as it focuses on preparing to land astronauts on the moon. The space agency is targeting 2026 for the first crewed mission back to the surface.

The Artemis program has already experienced delays. Altemus said he envisions that companies such as Intuitive Machines — operating under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS initiative — could bolster US lunar efforts if astronaut missions face further schedule setbacks.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com