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Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus Achieves First Landing for CLPS

An artist’s rendering of a Nova-C class lander on the lunar surface.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

On Thursday, February 22nd, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander Odysseus successfully touched down on the Moon, achieving the “ultimate milestone” for the IM-1 mission and marking the first major victory for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. After Powered Descent Initiation occurred at 5:11 PM CST, Odysseus’s main engine fired for approximately eleven minutes, bringing the vehicle down for a soft landing on the lunar highlands at 5:23 CST. Despite a slight pointing error which delayed acquisition of signal, the lander was confirmed to be on the surface and transmitting a few minutes after touchdown. At a press conference on February 23rd, Intuitive Machines CEO Stephen Altemus reported that the team currently believes the lander to be lying on its side, but otherwise intact. Odysseus is the first American spacecraft to have safely landed on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, and the first to do so near the lunar South Pole.

Odysseus heads for the moon as the part of NASA’s second CLPS mission.
Credit: Brandon Berkoff

The IM-1 mission began with a liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the early morning hours of Thursday, February 15th. After a brief commissioning period, the Odysseus spacecraft performed several course corrections to guide it towards a successful Lunar Orbit Insertion on February 21st. After spending about a day in low orbit, the spacecraft performed Descent Orbit Insertion at 4:11 PM CST, preparing the mission for final descent an hour later. The Intuitive Machines team overcame a major guidance issue prior to landing, replacing Odysseus’ own faulty LiDAR with NASA’s Navigation Doppler LiDAR (NDL) payload, originally intended to operate as a technology demonstration. The team was able to successfully integrate data from the NDL system into Odysseus’ flight plan, enabling it to navigate to its final landing site.

NASA’s Navigation Doppler LiDAR payload, which provided critical navigation data during the landing.
Credit: NASA

Just before landing, Odysseus was expected to deploy the first of its commercial payloads: EagleCam, a remote camera system provided by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which aimed to capture a third-person view of the lander’s final descent to the surface. However, due to the issue with Odysseus’ LiDAR system, Intuitive Machines opted to forgo the planned deployment of EagleCam during landing. Still, the team at Embry-Riddle remained in good spirits despite this change of plans. Daniel Lopez, lead power engineer for the EagleCam, told Space Scout that the Intuitive Machines team has been “wonderful” to work with as they assess their options moving forward. Since the payload remains healthy, Lopez said the team is considering plans to deploy the camera after landing to provide additional imagery of the vehicle. Photos provided by EagleCam may shed additional insight on Odysseus’ orientation and help Intuitive Machines learn more about the pointing error that hindered communications shortly after yesterday’s landing.

The originally planned deployment sequence for Embry Riddle’s EagleCam payload, which was intentionally not released during the landing.
Credit: ERAU

With Odysseus safely on the lunar surface, six NASA payloads and six commercial payloads (including EagleCam) have now been successfully delivered to the Moon, marking a triumphant victory for NASA’s CLPS missions. This initiative, which hopes to establish recurring delivery services to the Moon, had a rough start earlier this year when Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One suffered a failure shortly after launch. Peregrine’s lost Moon mission stirred concern about NASA’s unusually lax risk posture towards CLPS missions, which holds that failures are an acceptable part of the process. With the success of IM-1, Intuitive Machines’ intrepid lander has taken the first steps to alleviate these fears, and has returned the United States to the Moon after half a century of goals in flux. Odysseus has proved that American industry can still defeat the odds of spaceflight and rise to the challenge of lunar exploration. Nevertheless, as CLPS improves to a 50% success rate, hard questions remain for the program’s future sustainability, and its fail-fast approach will be borne out by many landing attempts yet to come.

For now, Intuitive Machines can celebrate their momentous accomplishment, as they work with their customers to begin science and technology demonstrations on the lunar surface. Odysseus is expected to operate for seven days before surrendering to the lunar night, but the lander’s legacy will far outlast its first mission. Intuitive Machines has two additional flights of its Nova-C vehicle planned so far, and is well-poised to provide the first recurring services to our celestial neighbor.

Edited by Nik Alexander

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