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Odysseus' odyssey: Intuitive Machines lander launches to the moon

February 15, 2024

— Houston, Texas has long taken pride in its name being the first word addressed back to Earth by the first humans to land on the moon. Now, more than 50 years later, the first spacecraft built entirely in Houston is on its way to becoming the first commercial lander to touch down on the lunar surface.

Intuitive Machines' IM-1 Nova-C moon lander is not carrying a crew so will not be able to call back, "Houston, Odysseus has landed" as the Apollo 11 astronauts on Eagle did in 1969, but if successful, the robotic spacecraft's achievement should be heard in "Space City" and around the world. It will mark the return of the United States to the lunar surface as NASA works to resume landing astronauts under its Artemis program.

"This is a profoundly humbling moment for all of us at Intuitive Machines," said Trent Martin, vice president of space systems at Intuitive Machines, during a pre-launch call with reporters. "The opportunity to return the United States to the moon for the first time since 1972 is a feat of engineering that demands a hunger to explore and that's at the heart of everyone is Intuitive Machines."

The Odysseus ("Odie" for short) lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday (Feb. 15) at 1:05 a.m. EST (0605 GMT). Powering the first two minutes and 17 seconds of flight was a first stage booster that previously supported 17 other missions, Once spent, it flew back to a vertical touchdown on Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Intuitive Machines-1 launch to the moon. Click to enlarge video in new pop-up window. (NASA)

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9's second stage continued to fire, delivering Odysseus to space. After a nearly 35-minute coast period and 53-second burn, the lander will separate from the stage at about 48 minutes after launch.

"After launch vehicle separation, the vehicle performs an autonomous commissioning, followed shortly after in the first day by a commissioning burn, which is the first time ever that our liquid oxygen and liquid methane rocket engine will burn in space," said Martin. "We are using a cryogenic propulsion system that allows us the opportunity to have a very large rocket engine, which means we don't spend a lot of time in Earth orbit, so we don't go through the Van Allen belts and get the high radiation on our electronics."

"It allows us to get to the moon very, very fast, as you can see from this mission launching on the 14th and arriving on Feb. 22nd," he said.

Odysseus will spend about a day circling the moon at 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the surface before beginning an hour-long descent next Thursday.

"Our terrain relative navigation device will help us perform our powered decent initiation, our pitch over for our main engine where our main engine will fire as we do our hazard detective avoidance and a vertical descent, terminal descent and landing on the moon," said Martin.

Intuitive Machines is targeting a touchdown in the vicinity of Malapert A, a 43-mile-wide (69-km) crater about 186 miles (300 km) from the moon's south pole.

As part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, Intuitive Machines' IM-1 mission is delivering six payloads for the space agency, including a radio receiver system to measure the plasma environment that will be encountered by future Artemis astronauts, as well as provide a baseline for radio astronomy systems; a collection of laser retro-reflectors, similar to the type left by the Apollo astronauts to measure precise distances; and a LIDAR-based (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor that will provide velocity and range sensing during the descent.

NASA is also flying video and still image cameras to capture and analyze the effects of the lander's plume as it interacts with the lunar surface and a CubeSat-sized S-band beacon to demonstrate autonomous spacecraft positioning.

As a commercial spacecraft, Odysseus is also carrying EagleCam, a camera system designed at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida to capture the first-ever, third-person picture of a spacecraft making a landing on a celestial body other than Earth. EagleCam will also test an electrostatic dust-removal system that could lead to future advances in spacesuit technology.

ILOA Hawai'i is flying ILO-X, a miniaturized dual-camera lunar imaging suite aimed at capturing some of the first images of the center of the Milky Way from the surface of the moon. Lonestar Data Holdings will demonstrate storing customers' documents aboard the Nova-C lander and the ability to both upload and download documents to and from Earth and the moon.

Galactic Legacy Labs' Lunaprise will archive "The Humanity Hall of Fame," holding messages on NanoFiche discs to show future civilizations how we lived and loved. Lastly, artist Jeff Koons is sending 125 miniature moons as a part of a project titled "Jeff Koons: Moon Phases."

The 14-foot-tall by 5-foot-wide (4.3-by-1.6-meter) lander is also testing Columbia Sportswear's Omni-Heat Infinity technology to insulate the access hatch to the spacecraft's propulsion tank. The material, which can also be found as the lining of Columbia's cold-weather apparel, was borne out of the blankets that protected the Apollo spacecraft, bringing it full circle from Earth to the moon and back in just over half a century.

The Nova-C lander's liquid methane and liquid oxygen-fed main engine, called the VR900, was based on the vertical landing development work done by the Project Morpheus team at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2010 to 2014. If successful, Odysseus will be the first cryogenic fueled spacecraft to land on the moon.

The IM-1 mission comes just a month after another CLPS company, Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, attempted to send its first mission to land on the moon but a propulsion anomaly soon after the Jan. 8 launch ended with the Peregrine lander reentering Earth's atmosphere and being destroyed 11 days later.

Later on Jan. 19, Japan's Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) spacecraft successfully landed, making Japan only the fifth nation to reach the lunar surface. While it was able to achieve some of its goals, the SLIM lander tipped over on its side, leaving its solar panels obstructed, such that SLIM could only function for a brief time.

Intuitive Machines' IM-1 mission is planned to operate on the lunar surface for about a week before the lunar night sets on the moon's south pole, rendering the Odysseus lander inoperable.


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Intuitive Machines' IM-1 Nova-C lunar lander "Odysseus" launches for the moon from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center ni Florida, Feb. 15, 2024. (SpaceX)

Intuitive Machines' IM-1 Nova-C lunar lander "Odysseus" is seen separating from the upper stage of its SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle, beginning its journey to the moon, Feb. 15, 2024. (SpaceX)

Intuitive Machines' first Nova-C lunar lander stands complete in the company's Lunar Production and Operations Center in Houston on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. (collectSPACE)

Intuitive Machines' planned path from Earth the moon's surface has 16 success criteria from launch to landing. (Intuitive Machines)

Intuitive Machines' IM-1 Nova-C mission patch. (Intuitive Machines)

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