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Odysseus moon lander still operational, in final hours before battery dies

Odysseus moon lander still operational, in final hours before battery dies
The NASA's Nova-C lunar lander, encapsulated within the fairing of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, part of the Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission, lifts up from the Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, 15 February 2024. As part of NASA's CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) initiative and Artemis campaign, SpaceX Falcon 9 launched Intuitive Machines' first lunar lander to the Moon's surface. EPA-EFE/CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH

Odysseus, the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon since 1972, neared the end of its fifth day on the lunar surface still operational, but with its battery in its final hours before the vehicle is expected to go dark, according to flight controllers.

By Steve Gorman and Joey Roulette

Texas-based Intuitive Machines LUNR.O said in an online update on Tuesday that its control center in Houston remained in contact with the lander as it “efficiently sent payload science data and imagery in furtherance of the company’s mission objectives.”

The spacecraft reached the lunar surface last Thursday after an 11th-hour navigational glitch and white-knuckle descent that ended with Odysseus landing in a sideways or sharply tilted position that has impeded its communications and solar-charging capability.

Intuitive Machines said the next day that human error was to blame for the navigational issue. Flight readiness teams had neglected to manually unlock a safety switch before launch, preventing subsequent activation of the vehicle’s laser-guided range finders and forcing flight engineers to hurriedly improvise an alternative during lunar orbit.

An Intuitive executive told Reuters on Saturday that the safety switch lapse stemmed from the company’s decision to forgo a test-firing of the laser system during pre-launch checks in order to save time and money.

Whether or not failure of the range finders and last-minute substitution of a work-around ultimately caused Odysseus to land in an off-kilter manner remained an open question, according to Intuitive officials.

Nevertheless, the company said last Friday that two of the spacecraft’s communication antennae were knocked out of commission, pointed the wrong way, and that its solar panels were likewise facing the wrong direction, limiting the vehicle’s ability to recharge its batteries.

As a consequence, Intuitive said on Monday that it expected to lose contact with Odysseus on Tuesday morning, cutting short the mission that held a dozen science instruments for NASA and several commercial customers and had been intended to operate on the moon for seven to 10 days.

 

BESIDE CRATER WALL?

On Tuesday morning, Intuitive said controllers were still “working on final determination of battery life on the lander, which may continue up to an additional 10-20 hours.”

The latest update from the company indicated the spacecraft might last for a total of six days before the sun sets over the landing site.

The company’s shares closed 7% higher on Tuesday. The stock plummeted last week following news the spacecraft had landed askew.

It remained to be seen how much research data and imagery from payloads might go uncollected because of Odysseus’ cockeyed landing and shortened lunar lifespan.

NASA paid Intuitive $118 million to build and fly Odysseus.

NASA chief Bill Nelson told Reuters on Tuesday he understood that agency scientists expected to retrieve some data from all six of their payloads. He also said Odysseus apparently landed beside a crater wall and was leaning at a 12-degree angle, though it was not clear whether that meant 12 degrees from the surface or 12 degrees from an upright position.

Intuitive executives said on Feb. 23 that engineers believed Odysseus had caught the foot of one of its landing legs on the lunar surface as it neared touchdown and tipped over before coming to rest horizontally, apparently propped up on a rock.

No photos from Odysseus on the lunar surface have been transmitted yet. But an image from an orbiting NASA spacecraft released on Monday showed the lander as a tiny speck near its intended destination in the moon’s south pole region.

Despite its less-than-ideal touchdown, Odysseus became the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon since NASA’s last crewed Apollo mission to the lunar surface in 1972.

It was also the first lunar landing ever by a commercially manufactured and operated space vehicle, and the first under NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to Earth’s natural satellite this decade.

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