Intuitive Machines’ lunar probe likely landed on its side

Using a mock-up of the moon lander, Steve Altmus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, showed the device on one side, but with its top probably resting on “a rock”allowing it to be partially “elevated”.

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“We think” that Odysseus “trapped his foot on the surface and the moon overturned”explained Steve Altemus, CEO and co-founder of the American company, at a press conference.

The American company Intuitive Machines, the first private company to have landed on the Moon, announced Friday February 23 that its probe had probably found itself lying on one side was instead of landing vertically on the Moon, but that scientific data and images should still be able to be recovered.

Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus probe, which measures more than 4 meters high, landed on the Moon at 11:23 p.m. GMT on Thursday, becoming the first American device to do so in more than 50 years. But twists and turns, notably a failure of its navigation system, complicated the final descent. “We think” that Odysseus “trapped his foot on the surface and the moon overturned”explained Steve Altemus, CEO and co-founder of Intuitive Machines, at a press conference.

Using a model of the lander, he showed the device on one side, but with its upper part probably resting on “a rock”allowing it to be partially “elevated”, according to the analyzes of this young company, founded in 2013 and based in Houston, Texas. The lander nevertheless produces energy thanks to its solar panels located and can therefore operate, he said, specifying that a NASA probe in lunar orbit should try to take photos “this weekend”, which could confirm Odysseus’ exact location. The company said Thursday evening that the plane had landed “standing”but this assertion was based on erroneous data, added the CEO.

An additional turn of the Moon

The device notably transports scientific instruments from NASA, which wishes to explore the South Pole of the Moon before sending its astronauts there, as part of its Artemis missions. Luckily, most of the cargo carried by the lander is on the side facing away from the lunar surface, Altemus said. However, some antennas are pointed towards the ground, limiting data transmission capacities.

Another disappointment: a small machine equipped with cameras and called EagleCam, developed by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, was to be ejected from the lander at last moment to capture the landing from the outside. Unfortunately, due to complications encountered during this phase, the deployment of EagleCam has been postponed, the university said Friday. This is now planned during the ground mission, which could make it possible to obtain an external view of the lander.

The moon landing, even if it was not perfect, still marks a success for NASA, which had signed a $118 million contract with Intuitive Machines for it to transport six instruments scientists during this mission, named IM-1. One of them probably saved the trip. The lunar navigation system did not work as expected, so the company had to improvise. During an additional tour of the Moon added just before the dreaded descent, employees programmed a NASA laser system at the last minute to guide the lander. This system, which aims to improve the precision of landings, was to be activated for the first time in space during this mission, during a test. But it was eventually used successfully as the primary navigation system.

Stimulating the development of a lunar economy

Odysseus’ ground operations are expected to last about seven days at most, before night sets in on the lunar south pole. Intuitive Machines received congratulations from all over the world on Thursday, including from competing companies who themselves recently tried the maneuver without success: the Japanese start-up ispace, which crashed on the Moon last year, and the American Astrobotic, which did not manage to reach the star in January. This mission is the first for Intuitive Machines, but the second for NASA’s new lunar delivery program, called CLPS, after the failure of Astrobotic last month.

Instead of sending scientific instruments to the Moon using vehicles belonging to it, the American space agency decided to order this service from private companies. This strategy should allow him to make the trip more often and for less money. But also to stimulate the development of a lunar economy, capable of supporting a sustainable human presence on the Moon – one of the goals of NASA’s Artemis program. In total, four additional US lunar missions are officially planned this year under the CLPS program, including two more from Intuitive Machines.

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