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IM-1 Odysseus Moon Mission: A Major Victory In Human Ingenuity. Now Let’s Increase Our Power

IM-1 Odysseus Moon Mission: A Major Victory In Human Ingenuity. Now Let’s Increase Our Power
Illustration of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander with a depiction of NASA’s the Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 attached to the spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. Credits: Intuitive Machines

Intuitive Machines' Nova-C class lander, Odysseus, became the first private spacecraft to softly land on the surface of the Moon. The lander touched down near the South Pole region of the lunar surface on February 22nd, following a very complex launch, trajectory, and autonomous landing sequence. It was launched on February 15th, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket. Odysseus carried a total of twelve payloads, including six from NASA. It is also important to note here that following the launch, the Falcon 9 reusable first stage returned for a touchdown at landing zone one, following stage separation.

Odysseus is the first Lunar lander to use a 3D printed liquid methane/liquid oxygen fueled engine, the VR900. The 4,200 pound (4.6 meters wide and 4.3 meters tall) lander touched down at Malpart A crater near the lunar South Pole. In the February 28th joint press conference with NASAIntuitive Machines explained that neither the originally intended laser range finding system, nor the experimental NASA laser system which had been pressed into last-minute service to give data to the automatic landing system were able to actually give data to the autonomous landing system. Therefore the landing was made only with input from the inertial navigation system. The lack of accurate laser altitude information led the lander to mistakenly perceive that it was at a higher altitude than was actually the case. Therefore the lander hit the lunar surface at a higher altitude, and higher velocity than had been intended. Nor did it reach its intended relatively level landing site. It landed on a slope about 1.5 kilometers short of its intended landing site, and with its engine running. As the engine powered down, the lander slowly tipped onto its side.

Despite the navigation system problems revealed in this first test flight, Odysseus has been sending back data (including images) from all of NASA's active payloads.

The Intuitive Machines landing was the first successful American landing of any spacecraft on the Moon since 1972. But the life of  the spacecraft may soon be coming to an end, as the spacecraft remaining on its side has altered how the solar panels are positioned in relation to the sun. Odysseus may have very little time left to survive. The mission was scheduled to operate for 7-10 days. The spacecraft’s cameras, nonetheless, have sent back numerous pictures of Odysseus and its landing site, and Intuitive Machines does plan to complete the mission as planned. So far, Odysseus has continued to generate solar power. The coming onset of lunar night and the fall off in power generation at some point soon will not allow the spacecraft to continue sending back telemetry. The lander will be put to sleep and hopefully reawakened in the next two to three weeks. The team will test whether or not there will be a signal received back once the sun powers up the solar panels again.

Intuitive Machines is one of several companies selected by NASA as part of its CLPS or Commercial Lunar Payload Services program to carry NASA payloads to the surface of the Moon, as part of the Artemis Moon-Mars program to prepare the way for human exploration of the Moon and Mars. Intuitive Machines was selected in 2019 and funded at $118 million to deliver NASA instruments and science payloads for investigations before sending humans to the lunar surface. The region of the Moon of greatest interest, not just to NASA but to several other countries, is the lunar south pole.

IM-1 is the second  private Moon mission contracted by NASA to be launched from Kennedy Space Center. Unfortunately, the first commercial lunar delivery vehicle which had been launched aboard the otherwise very successful January 8th first flight of the United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur Rocket, suffered a propulsion system failure and was eventually directed to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, with the loss of all the payloads on board. That lander was known as the Peregrine lander from Astrobotic.

As with the commercial resupply contracts for the International Space Station, NASA aims to develop a group of companies able to deliver freight of all kinds relatively inexpensively to the lunar surface. The three objectives outlined for NASA’s CLPS initiatives, according to Joel Kearns, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, Exploration Science Mission Directorate are the following:

  1. "To do great science on the Moon.
  2. To test out technology and engineer for future human exploration and Artemis.
  3. To generate a group of companies that are highly skilled in doing robotic lunar landings to be used as part of the Artemis initiative.”

President Donald Trump set out the goal of quickly sending the first woman and next man to the Moon for the first time since 1972. An ambitious Moon-Mars exploration program was developed out of this goal, called Artemis, named for the twin sister of Apollo. Artemis aims to build out lunar settlements and utilize the resources of the lunar regolith for building permanent manned bases on the Moon and Mars. The Moon has water ice and other important resources for utilization by human explorers.

A major part of President Trump’s Moon-Mars Initiative was the deployment of nuclear reactors in space through a program named Kilopower. This becomes especially relevant when we think of the unfortunate circumstances the Intuitive Machines lander faces after tipping over on its side and possibly not being able to continue performing its mission on the Moon. It is worth asking, why is anyone still using solar arrays for lander missions? If the Russian Luna 25 mission had been successful in its lunar landing attempt, it could have told another story. That mission had been designed to survive the lunar nights and harsh lunar temperatures, using plutonium as a radioisotope source for generating power and heat.

On January 19th, Japan became the fifth country to make a soft landing on the moon (in this case it landed near the lunar South Pole) with its SLIM, Smart Lander for Investigating Moon mission. The lander recently sent home new photos, after unexpectedly surviving a 14-day lunar night of constant darkness and extreme cold. This incredible achievement wouldn’t have been unexpected if it had been powered by radioisotopes.

As you will discover in the fascinating mission update highlighted above, Intuitive Machines’ lander Odysseus, with the many instruments and payloads onboard, has made some remarkable breakthroughs on the lunar surface. The pictures, and data sent back are phenomenal and will be of great use in future missions.  While the United States, NASA, and future commercial missions prepare to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon via the Artemis Program, one major objective that must be on the agenda is the improvement of the power sources that will be used. We should lead the way in prioritizing nuclear fission and fusion power for space exploration, and demonstrate that any nation hoping to be successful in building human settlements on the Moon and Mars must move in this direction.