Thursday, April 25

SpaceX launches user-friendly Nova-C Moon Lander machines

Another month, another attempt at the moon.

A robotic lunar lander launched into space early Thursday morning. If all goes well, on February 22 it will become the first American spacecraft to land softly on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972.

It would also become the first private attempt to reach the surface of the Moon in one piece. Three previous attempts, by an American company, a Japanese company and an Israeli nonprofit, have failed.

The company tasked with this mission, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, is optimistic.

“I’m pretty confident that we’ll be able to land softly on the moon,” Stephen Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, said in an interview. “We did the tests. We tested, tested and tested. All the tests we could do.

If private companies could accomplish this feat, at a much lower cost than a traditional NASA mission, it would open the door to broader NASA exploration of the Moon and commercial activity.

“We’re trying to create a market in a place where it didn’t exist,” Joel Kearns, an official in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a news conference Tuesday. “But to do that, we have to do it in a cost-conscious way.”

NASA is the lead customer for this mission, paying Intuitive Machines $118 million to take its payloads, which include a stereo camera to observe the dust plume kicked up during landing and a radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles on radio signals, for the surface of the moon. There’s also a load of non-NASA customers, like a camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and an art project by Jeff Koons.

But if these private efforts continue to fail, NASA won’t get its money.

The mission had a quiet and auspicious start.

At 1:05 a.m. Eastern time, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the lander lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the lander on a direct trajectory toward the moon. Intuitive Machines reported less than an hour later that the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s second stage and successfully ignited. The spacecraft can keep itself pointed in the correct direction, its solar panels generate power and it is in radio contact with Intuitive Machines’ mission control in Houston, the company said later Thursday morning.

“We are acutely aware of the immense challenges that lie ahead,” Altemus said in a statement. “However, it is precisely by addressing these challenges head-on that we recognize the scale of the opportunity before us: gently returning the United States to the surface of the Moon for the first time in 52 years.”

Intuitive Machines calls its spacecraft project Nova-C. It is a hexagonal cylinder with six landing legs, about 14 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Intuitive Machines notes that the lander’s body is about the size of an old British police telephone box, i.e. like the Tardis in the science fiction TV show “Doctor Who.”

At launch, with a full tank of propellant, the lander weighed about 4,200 pounds.

This particular spacecraft was named Odysseus after a competition among Intuitive Machines employees. Mario Romero, the engineer who proposed the name, said the voyages of the hero of the “Odyssey,” the ancient Greek epic, provided an apt analogy for the moon mission.

“This journey takes much longer due to numerous challenges, setbacks and delays,” Romero said in Intuitive Machines’ press kit for the mission. “Traveling across the daunting, wine-dark sea repeatedly tests his courage, but in the end Ulysses proves himself worthy and returns home after 10 years.”

After a week of travel away from Earth, Ulysses will enter orbit around the Moon about 62 miles above the surface. Then, 24 hours later, he will fire up the engine to begin the final descent. An hour later, he is deposited near a crater called Malapert A, about 185 miles from the south pole. The landing site is relatively flat, an easier place for a spacecraft to land.

The south polar region, particularly the craters that remain in perpetual shadow, has become an area of ​​interest due to the presence of frozen water. Previous American lunar missions landed in equatorial regions.

After landing, Ulysses must operate for seven days until sunset. The solar-powered lander is not designed to survive the freezing cold of the lunar night.

The launch of the Intuitive Machines mission comes just a month after another American company, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, attempted to send its Peregrine lander to the Moon. But a propulsion system malfunction shortly after launch prevented any possibility of landing. Ten days later, as Peregrine headed back toward Earth, it burned up in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

Both Odysseus and Peregrine are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program. The goal of the program is to use commercial companies to send experiments to the Moon rather than NASA building and operating its own lunar landers.

The space agency hopes this approach will be much cheaper, allowing it to send more missions more frequently as it prepares to send astronauts back to the Moon as part of its Artemis program.

Thomas Zurbuchen, a former NASA associate administrator for science who started the CLPS program in 2018, said the space agency expected half of CLPS missions to fail and that it has repeatedly told Congress, scientists and companies to expect it . “That’s how it was sold,” he said in an interview.

But even if half of these commercial missions failed, NASA would still be ahead of the game because a traditional mission costs $500 million to $1 billion, Dr. Zurbuchen said, whereas on a CLPS mission, NASA is paying a company about $100 million to fly its payloads. .

Even a 50% success rate may be too optimistic. “Even if you’re a proponent of this, you need to see if that strategy works,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.

Altemus, who worked for six years as director of engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the drive to reduce costs spurred a much faster pace of innovation than was possible at NASA.

“An innovation that wouldn’t have happened if we had more money and more time,” he said. “If you look at all the milestones that led to the moon landing, all the technical achievements that we were able to achieve with that small amount of money, it’s just amazing.”

The most difficult part of the mission, the landing, has yet to happen.

Altemus admitted that it was necessary to make decisions that reduced costs but increased risks.

“Now, have we gone too cheap?” Mr. Altemus said. “Possibly.”

If that happens, CLPS companies may have to raise prices for future missions, even though they would still be cheaper than those traditionally undertaken by NASA. Altemus said that if Intuitive Machines failed this time, NASA and Congress shouldn’t give up on the moon idea on a budget.

“It’s the only way to really move forward,” Altemus said.