April 13, 2024

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Intuitive machines preparing to land on the moon. Here's what to know: NPR

Intuitive machines preparing to land on the moon.  Here's what to know: NPR

Intuitive Machines' Odysseus lunar lander was lifted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 15.

Greg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

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Greg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

Intuitive Machines' Odysseus lunar lander was lifted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 15.

Greg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

The United States may be about to land its first commercial mission on the moon. The robotic probe known as Odysseus is scheduled to land on Thursday near the moon's south pole.

But there is still a lot that could go wrong.

The spacecraft was built by the Houston-based company Intuitive machines. It took off from Florida last week aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The IM-1 mission is one of several missions NASA has purchased from private companies as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

The space agency is paying a fixed price of just over $100 million for the mission, which is a relative bargain when it comes to space exploration. On board are several NASA experiments that will be used to study the environment surrounding the lander and develop some new technologies for future landings.

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Odysseus will attempt to land near Malaparte Crater, a large crater near the Moon's south pole. This location offers several advantages, says Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Landing sites near the South Pole are exposed to near-constant sunlight, which can power the spacecraft's solar cells for a longer period; Some dark craters in Antarctica are believed to be home to water in the form of ice.

“Water is important because you can split it into hydrogen and oxygen, so you have oxygen to breathe,” she says. The two items are also “ingredients you can use as rocket fuel.”

“The ultimate goal of some of these projects is to use the Moon’s resources to enable further exploration into the solar system,” she says.

NASA hopes the CLPS program will help build a network of private suppliers, which will allow the United States to once again land astronauts on the moon. It wants commercial companies to explore sites, land scientific instruments and rovers, and pave the way for human exploration.

But the Odysseus probe also includes several commercial payloads.

“They wanted to make the commercial sector easier, and you can see that in action in Intuitive Machines’ journey,” says Chris Quilty, co-CEO of Quilty Space, which analyzes space businesses.

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Among the commercial products on board are space-age fabric from sportswear manufacturer Columbia, some special art pieces, and a small test of a secure data backup system on the moon.

Data “is the most valuable asset we have as a technological civilization,” says Chris Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar Data Holdings, a Florida-based company that wants to build data centers on the moon. “Do we keep it here where we have wars and storms and weather and network hacking issues…or do we put it somewhere where there is no climate change? Where there is no atmosphere?”

Stott says his company has already successfully stored and retrieved a digital copy of the Declaration of Independence from the lander. He has future customers, including the state of Florida, looking to store several terabytes of data on the moon in a future mission.

But before NASA can realize its ambitions and before your images can be backed up on the lunar hard drive, Odysseus must commit to a landing. This is not a given. Privately funded lunar missions from Israel and Japan have crashed in recent years, and another NASA-backed mission from Astrobotic returned to Earth in January after suffering a fuel leak.

“We could really use Neil Armstrong at this point, couldn't we?” Quilty jokes.

Although Armstrong and others made perfect landings on the lunar surface in the 1960s and 1970s, lunar landings are still difficult, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who closely follows spaceflight.

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“We feel like it's a solved problem, but it's actually still evolving,” McDowell says.

Robotic missions like Odysseus must automatically fly to the surface, and cannot use parachutes because there is no air there. McDowell says Odysseus could crash, like many that have landed before it, but he says companies learn from every mistake.

“Even when they fail, they don't fail disgracefully,” he says. “With a certain amount of repetition and a few more attempts, I'm confident they can succeed.”

Landing is scheduled for 5:30 PM ET on Thursday.