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IM-1 Heads for the Moon

Falcon 9 lifts Odysseus away from Launch Complex 39A, beginning the IM-1 mission.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

On February 15th, at 1:05 AM Eastern Time, Intuitive Machine’s NOVA-C lander Odysseus lifted off in support of the IM-1 mission – with the aim of becoming the first American spacecraft to make it to the lunar surface in over 50 years, following the failure of the Astrobotic Peregrine lander in January. The mission, the second under the Commercial Lunar Payload Service initiative, aims to deliver lower cost science packages to the lunar surface by utilizing If successful, IM-1 will become the first American spacecraft to set down on the South Pole, a region prized for its resources but rife for potential conflict in the near future. 

The NOVA-C lander, built by Intuitive Machines, hit a snag on its first attempt at launch on Wednesday, February 14th, with off-nominal temperatures reported in the methane fuel used to power the lander towards the lunar surface. NOVA-C is novel in that it uses cryogenic methane in place of storable propellants, necessitating some degree of propellant management during the cruise to the moon. Following another SpaceX launch from the Eastern Range, the Missile Defense Agency’s USSF-124 mission at 5:30 PM, the company turned around to launch Odysseus only 6 and a half hours later. Booster 1060, making its 18th flight, lifted off from Launch Complex 39A  at 1:05 AM – pitching downrange and powering the vehicle for its first two minutes of flight, before shutting down and returning to LZ-1. Following successful orbital insertion, Falcon 9’s second stage coasted for nearly 40 minutes, before lighting its MVac engine one additional time to place the spacecraft on a trajectory that will intercept the Moon. 

Falcon 9’s first and second stages part ways, with Booster 1060 returning to the Cape for it’s 18th landing.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

Thursday’s mission represents a significant shift in operations on the Space Coast. With two boosters requiring the landing zones at the Cape for the first time, LZ-1 and LZ-2 were split across two separate missions – with LZ-2 being occupied by the first stage booster for USSF-124. SpaceX’s desire to significantly ramp up cadence in 2024 may make such a scene more common for missions not requiring the company’s drone ships. The two missions carried out on Wednesday night and early Thursday morning marked the 272nd and 273rd landing of Falcon 9 – further cementing the status of the vehicle as a reuse leader.

The Falcon 9 carrying Odysseus was visible from as far away as Abel, Georgia – 458 miles from the launch pad.
Credit: Nick Boone

At roughly 48 minutes and 30 seconds into flight, the lander separated from Falcon 9’s second stage, sending the spacecraft towards our celestial neighbor. At 9:20 AM, Intuitive Machines released a statement saying that the spacecraft was receiving power and communicating with Intuitive Machines’ ground station, aptly named Nova Control. Odysseus will take nearly 8 days to complete its lunar transfer, performing a series of trajectory correction maneuvers to refine its orbit, before ultimately entering into a low lunar orbit over the far side of the Moon. The spacecraft will orbit the Moon several times before beginning the descent phase, using its terrain relative navigation to help to locate an ideal landing site on the complex lunar surface. The spacecraft will ultimately land on the Moon on February 22nd, becoming the first American spacecraft to do so in over 50 years. 

Odysseus separates from the Falcon 9 second stage, with a week long cruise to the Moon ahead of it.
Credit: SpaceX/NASA

The history of CLPS stretches back well over half a decade, being announced formally during the Trump administration. Beginning in 2018, NASA selected a pool of fourteen commercial vendors to provide landing services under the CLPS initiative for a variety of government payloads. Under this model, companies are encouraged to both deliver and fail fast, building on their own experience to get payloads to the lunar surface. By adopting a higher risk approach in favor of a mission assurance focused attitude, NASA hopes to lower the cost of access to the lunar surface. Each provider, under the format of the initiative, may bid on particular task orders to deliver payloads to a specific destination on the lunar surface. Many companies, including Intuitive Machines, have opted to develop one or more common lander platforms to provide consistent service to the Moon. Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One, which launched on January 8th on the inaugural Vulcan flight, was the first flight of the CLPS initiative – aiming to deliver a wide range of payloads for a variety of customers. In the end, the mission was unsuccessful, as the lander experienced a propellant leak that precluded a landing attempt, with the spacecraft ultimately re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The six NASA payloads aboard Odysseus on the IM-1 mission consist of both scientific experiments, including a radio astronomy instrument and a laser retroreflector, as well as technology demonstrations in support of future Moon landings under NASA’s Artemis program. These include tests of new communication and navigation systems, sensors for landing plume characterization, and new methods for monitoring cryogenic propellants, such as the liquid methane and oxygen employed by the NOVA-C lander. Future flights of NOVA-C class vehicles will also carry payloads for NASA, including the PRIME-1 in situ resource utilization experiment. The vehicle also includes a number of commercial and university payloads, including thermal insulation demonstrations from clothing manufacturer Columbia and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam, a deployable camera which will image the spacecraft on final descent.

NASA’s unique attitude towards failure in the CLPS initiative has received some criticism.. While some have applauded the freedom for companies to innovate and fail fast, the approach raises questions about mission assurance, particularly as CLPS aims to deliver increasingly more sophisticated and important payloads to the Moon in direct support of the wide goals within the Artemis program. In particular, the nearly 500 million dollar VIPER rover, slated for delivery aboard Astrobotic’s larger Griffin lander later this year, aims to characterize the presence of volatiles like water ice near the lunar South Pole, which may serve as key resources for future crews. The results of this and other missions such as PRIME-1 could substantially inform the future of human exploration on the Moon, including notional plans for a permanent Artemis Base Camp. 

NASA’s VIPER rover, slated to land on the moon onboard another CLPS lander, Astrobotic’s Griffin.
Credit: NASA

IM-1 is also the first CLPS mission to target the lunar South Pole, which has received increased attention in the past two decades since the discovery of vast deposits of ice locked in deeply shadowed craters. The Artemis program, an international human exploration program led by NASA alongside 33 partners, has targeted the lunar South Pole as a key site for accessing lunar resources, solar power, and scientific opportunities, with the aim of establishing a permanent foothold on our nearest celestial neighbor.

Several CLPS missions, including the VIPER rover, will target the lunar South Pole region, as will Artemis III, the first planned crewed landing of the Artemis program. Other parties have expressed interest in the area as well: ISRO’s Chandrayaan 3 landed at 69°S latitude in July of 2023, and the joint ISRO-JAXA LUPEX mission plans to explore permanently shadowed craters near the pole in the latter half of the decade. Roscosmos and China’s CNSA are developing their own International Lunar Research Station, a notional base camp with a coalition of 8 nations, and which similarly favors the lunar South Pole. CNSA’s robotic Chang’e 7 mission plans to land along the rim of Shackleton Crater, one of several candidate sites for the Artemis program’s human landings. This potential zone of conflict raises a series of questions about the future of deconfliction on the lunar surface, something that will need to be addressed if peaceful cohabitation on the Moon is to be achieved.

Should IM-1’s mission be successful, then the initial failure of the CLPS initiative may be nothing more than bad luck. The failure of Peregrine, while extremely well communicated, was a troubling start to a program that will soon become essential to Artemis operations as a whole. Equipment such as the Lunar Terrain Vehicle, mission specific science and other vital payloads like VIPER will depend on a program that can deliver payloads reliably, on schedule and without risk of mission failure. Landing on the Moon is no easy task, one that requires years of development work and expertise across institutions. With the moon still days away for Odysseus, only time will tell – but the South Pole beckons to all. 

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