WASHINGTON: A spacecraft built and flown by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines sailed around the moon on Thursday headed for an attempt at the first US touchdown on the lunar surface in more than half a century and the first ever entirely by the private sector.

The six-legged robot lander, dubbed Odysseus, was due to begin the final descent from lunar orbit with a blast of its main engine about an hour before landing, with touchdown planned for 5:30pm EST (2230 GMT) on Thursday at a crater named Malapert A near the moon’s south pole.

The vehicle is carrying a suite of scientific instruments and technology demonstrations for Nasa and several commercial customers designed to operate for seven days on solar energy before the sun sets over the polar landing site.

The Nasa payload will focus on collecting data on space weather interactions with the moon’s surface, radio astronomy and other aspects of the lunar environment for future landers and Nasa’s planned return of astronauts later in the decade.

The uncrewed spacecraft has been circling the moon about 57 miles (92 km) above the surface since reaching orbit on Wednesday, six days after it was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Odysseus remained “in excellent health” as it continued to orbit the moon, roughly 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth, transmitting flight data and lunar images to Intuitive Machines’ mission control center in Houston, the company said on Wednesday.

If the landing succeeds, the IM-1 mission would represent the first controlled descent to the lunar surface by a US spacecraft since Apollo 17 in 1972, when Nasa’s last crewed moon mission landed there with astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

To date, spacecraft from just four other countries have ever landed on the moon — the former Soviet Un­ion, China, India and, mostly recently, just last month, Japan. The United States is the only one ever to have sent humans to the lunar surface.

Dawn of Artemis

Success of Odysseus also would be the first “soft landing” on the moon ever by a commercially manufactured and operated vehicle and the first under Nasa’s Artemis lunar programme, as the US races to return astronauts to Earth’s natural satellite before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there.

Nasa aims to land its first crewed Artemis in late 2026 as part of long-term, sustained lunar exploration and a stepping stone toward eventual human flights to Mars. The initiative focuses on the moon’s south pole in part because a presumed bounty of frozen water exists there that can be used for life support and production of rocket fuel.

A host of small landers like Odysseus are expected to pave the way under Nasa’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, designed to deliver instruments and hardware to the moon at lower costs than the US space agency’s traditional method of building and launching those vehicles itself.

Leaning more heavily on smaller, less experienced private ventures comes with its own risks. Just last month the lunar lander of another firm, Astrobotic Technology, suffered a propulsion system leak on its way to the moon shortly after being placed in orbit on Jan 8 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket making its debut flight.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2024

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