Sunday, April 14, 2024
    HomeScienceOdysseus is on lunar surface after moon landing attempt

    Odysseus is on lunar surface after moon landing attempt

    For the first time since the last of the Apollo missions in 1972, an American spacecraft reached the surface of the moon Thursday, a significant step toward NASA’s plan to eventually return astronauts to Earth’s closest celestial neighbor.

    After a tense several minutes in which ground controllers were unsure about the health of the spacecraft, designed and operated by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, company officials declared it had landed successfully and was communicating with Earth. About two hours after the landing, the company confirmed that “after troubleshooting communications” the spacecraft was indeed standing upright, a momentous feat for the growing commercial space industry.

    “What we can confirm without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” Tim Crain, Intuitive Machines’ chief technology officer, said shortly after the landing. “And we are transmitting. So congratulations.”

    But initially, success was not assured. As the crews waited to hear from the spacecraft in the first few tense moments after the landing, Crain told his team that “we’re not dead yet” while wondering aloud if the spacecraft had landed at an “off angle.”

    Steve Altemus, the company’s CEO told his team: “I know this was a nail biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

    The spacecraft touched down at 6:23 p.m. Eastern, near the moon’s south pole, after a week-long journey that appeared to go very well from the moment it launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center.

    But as it prepared to descend to the surface ground controllers realized that lasers intended to determine its altitude and horizontal velocity, key data points for it autonomously to land softly on the surface of the moon, weren’t working. They ordered the craft to take an additional orbit around the moon before the landing attempt while uploading a software patch that would allow the spacecraft to begin using a NASA Doppler Lidar system that was to have been a technology demonstration during the flight.

    “We weren’t planning to use it in line with the actual mission coming down to the landing, but now we are,” said Prasun Desai, the deputy associate administrator for NASA’s space technology mission directorate. “So basically it is now the primary system to help provide the velocity and altitude information so that the lander can land safely on the surface.”

    The apparent landing of the company’s 14-foot-tall Nova-C lander, which had no people on board, is the first time a commercial spacecraft has reached the lunar surface, and it validates a big bet that NASA placed several years ago when it started a $2.9 billion program to hire a fleet of robotic, private-sector spacecraft to carry science experiments, technology instruments and eventually cargo to the moon.

    The Intuitive Machines mission was carried out as part of that program, known as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a $118 million contract to carry six instruments to the lunar surface that would help pave the way for future missions under its Artemis program, which seeks to return astronauts to the moon as early as 2026.

    Last month, another commercial company, Astrobotic, of Pittsburgh, failed in its attempt to reach the lunar surface after its spacecraft suffered a propulsion problem.

    When it first announced its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program several years ago, NASA’s leaders acknowledged the risk it was taking in relying so heavily on the private sector, which had never before sent a vehicle to the moon. But NASA has continued to insist that even if some of the missions failed, there would be others that succeeded, and that the often risk-averse agency would be happy to continue to “take shots on goal,” as they said.

    “This is a really a significant shift in how we do business,” Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said in an interview before the landing. “The fact that NASA is not actually building or responsible directly for these missions or their launches is an opportunity to invest in the commercial industry to build a new capability. NASA can then purchase the delivery service, and the intent hopefully being that we can increase the frequency of deliveries and reduce the cost to NASA of doing science.”

    The landing is a coup for NASA at a time when several nations are eyeing the moon, particularly the lunar south pole, where there is water in the form of ice. Water is not only vital to sustaining human life, but the hydrogen and oxygen could also be used as rocket fuel.

    The moon’s south pole “scientifically has been intriguing for a long time, in part because the rocks are really old,” Glaze said. “We believe they’re at least 3.85 billion years old, which kind of goes back to the very early days of the moon. Getting information about those rocks eventually will be able to tell more about the history of the moon. And then, by knowing that history, it tells us more about the history of Earth.”

    China has said it intends to land astronauts on the moon by 2030 and eventually build a research station there. Last month, Japan became the fifth country to land on the moon when its robotic spacecraft touched down — though on its side. In 2023, India landed a spacecraft on the moon as well.

    Under its Artemis program, NASA intends to establish an enduring presence at the lunar south pole. Created under the Trump administration, the program was cast as a part of a space race with China, and in 2019 then-vice president Pence directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon by this year. That won’t happen. But the program was embraced by the Biden administration, the first time a deep-space, human-exploration campaign has survived subsequent presidential administrations since the Apollo era.

    NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a Biden appointee, has also said the United States is in a race with China. But recently, NASA said the next missions in the Artemis program would be pushed back even further because of an array of technical difficulties.

    NASA successfully flew its Orion crew capsule, without anyone on board, around the moon in late 2022. But its next flight, known as Artemis II, won’t happen until September 2025 at the earliest, NASA has said. In that flight, Orion will carry four astronauts — three Americans and one Canadian — around the moon. Artemis III, the first human landing attempt since Apollo, will be pushed back to late 2026, NASA said.

    NASA, however, has grown concerned about the effectiveness of Orion’s heat shield, which protects the astronauts from the superhigh temperature generated as the spacecraft reenters Earth’s atmosphere after engineers detected more charring than expected from the initial flight.

    There have also been delays in the development of the space suits the astronauts will wear on the moon and of the Starship spacecraft, being built by SpaceX, that NASA has picked to ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface on the first flight.



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