Odysseus mission to be cut short after moon lander tipped over

By John Mercury March 2, 2024

The Odysseus probe will cut short its mission on the moon today, with engineers expecting to lose contact with the lander this morning.

The craft touched down on the surface last week in a “nail-biting” descent that saw the first ever privately owned lander reach the moon and the first from the US since 1972.

Odysseus was meant to last between a week and 10 days, but is now set to wind down five days after landing on its side on the moon and it remains to be seen how much scientific data might be lost.

Intuitive Machines – which launched the probe with NASA – admitted human error and forgoing tests may have contributed to the shortened lifespan.

“There were certainly things we could’ve done to test it and actually fire it,” Mike Hansen, the company’s head of navigation systems, said.

“They would’ve been very time-consuming and very costly.”

An in-flight failure of the spacecraft’s laser-guided range finders ahead of its landing near the moon’s south pole forced Odysseus into an extra orbit to give controllers time to work out an improvised landing.

The fault – identified just hours before descent – came about because company engineers didn’t unlock the laser safety switch before launch, which can only be disabled by hand.

The Intuitive Machines IM-1 Nova-C lunar lander, known as Odysseus, seen next to the arrow. Pic:  NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
Image:
The moon lander is seen next to the arrow. Pic: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University via Reuters

Mr Hansen, who crafted the software “patch” that solved the problem, said the company is yet to determine whether the ad-libbed navigational solution – which employed an experimental NASA-supplied system on the lander- might have been a factor in the spacecraft’s sideways landing.

The company said on Friday that Odysseus caught the bottom of one of its six landing legs on the uneven lunar surface and tipped over, apparently propped up on a rock.

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This limited the sun’s exposure to its solar panels and meant its antennae were pointed towards the moon’s surface, which blocked some communications.

Intuitive Machines has said it spent roughly $100m (£78m) on the lander and received $118m (£93m) from NASA.

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