The first private moon landers touch down to make history

The first private spacecraft to land on the Moon – NASA’s Odysseus mission has been sent a lunar goodbye

In a historic lunar accomplishment, the first private spacecraft to land successfully on the Moon touched down on 22 February. The last crew of Apollo astronauts visited the Moon in 1972 and the Odysseus was built in Houston, Texas.

The malfunction of the laser pointers that were supposed to help guide it down to the lunar surface was just one of a number of nail-biting moments in the hours before landing. NASA provided a secondary laser to be used instead of the software patch.

Immediately after the landing, which occurred at 5:23 p.m. Houston time, the exact state of the craft remained unclear. It sent a faint signal to Houston that at least part of it had escaped the touchdown. “Odysseus has found its new home,” said mission director Tim Crain as the control room burst into cheers.

The landing is a serious blow to US and commercial efforts to return to the Moon. NASA paid for much of the private mission and is counting on companies such as Intuitive Machines to help ferry equipment and scientific instruments to the Moon in preparation for returning astronauts there.

“The US has returned to the Moon,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships.”

Lunar Landing Mission Odysseus: A Spacecraft Launch for the Moon to Touch Down at the Moon’s South Pole

There will be first images from the lunar surface after the landing, depending on how the communications go. If the experiment goes well, they will collect data for up to seven days until the sun comes up and the power goes out at the landing site.

There have been five Moon landings that have failed. A mission by Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which ran out of fuel within an hour of launch, is among the failures. The Japanese space agency succeeded in placing its SLIM landers near the Moon, despite the fact that the craft landed upside down.

The craft’s engines were fired to descend to a lower altitude and it then moved through a series of maneouvres to assess craters and boulders. It took it’s time to reach its intended landing location and fired up its engines again to slow its descent.

The six-legged, phone-booth-sized spacecraft landed near the Malapert A crater, around 300 kilometres from the lunar south pole. NASA is interested in the Moon’s south pole because the region’s dirt and shadowy craters might contain ice that could provide fuel and other resources for future lunar explorers. Most of lunar landers have visited the Moon’s equatorial regions; the only mission to touch down near the south pole is India.

There are two launches in the NASA commercial lunar payload services programme, Odysseus and Astrobotic, which aims to encourage companies with low budgets to send small crews to the moon. NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to develop Odysseus, which is a fraction of the cost of a typical interplanetary mission.

The first craft to burn methane-based rocket fuel is Odysseus. Methane-based propellants are more efficient than traditional rocket propellants. But they can also be more difficult to work with because they need to remain at ultra-cold temperatures. The methane fuel is being used by several other companies.

Odysseus, the Navigation Doppler Lidar Experiment, and the Miracle of the Landing Mission on the Moon

Mission controllers had to send a patched up software patch to the landers before it ever got to land because it was still in retrograde around the moon. Patching your spacecraft’s software shortly before it makes its most critical move is just about the last thing a vehicle operator wants to do. But it was desperation that drove Intuitive Machines.

It was only a matter of time before Odysseus was able to use two of the NDL experiment’s cameras to navigate terrain-relative and hazard-relative. The software was hastily written and sent to the landers. This was some true MacGyver stuff. But would it work?

One of these payloads just happened to be the Navigation Doppler Lidar experiment, a 15-kilogram package that contains three small cameras. With this NDL payload, NASA sought to test out technologies that might be used to improve navigation systems in future landing attempts on the moon.

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by a company called Condé Nast.

The miracle was that Odysseus was able to make it after what the system did earlier in the day.

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