In the ancient Greek epic the Odyssey, Ithacan king Odysseus doggedly sails through treacherous waters to get back home. As soon as this Valentine’s Day, a spacecraft of the same name will attempt a dangerous journey of its own: the first U.S. soft landing on the moon since 1972.
As soon as 12:57 A.M. EST on February 14, a 14-foot-tall moon lander built by the Houston-based company Intuitive Machines will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. That spacecraft, nicknamed Odie—short for Odysseus—will be carrying payloads ranging from NASA science instruments to a group of sculptures by artist Jeff Koons. Odie’s destination: a crater less than 200 miles from the lunar south pole.
This mission, named IM-1, is flying under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which encourages private companies to take over the delivery of supplies and scientific instruments to the moon. Intuitive Machines is one of several companies angling to be the first private firm to ever softly land a spacecraft on another celestial body.
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“We understand and welcome the responsibility of our IM-1 mission,” said Intuitive Machines’ vice president of space systems Trent Martin in a January 31 media briefing. “The hopes and dreams of our customers, employees, their families, our shareholders and the lunar operations of the entire country are encapsulated and ready for launch.”
The mission marks a major test for CLPS, which will pay out as much as $2.6 billion to private companies for lunar deliveries. NASA hopes to save substantial money through the program. In 2019 Intuitive Machines received a NASA contract for IM-1 that is now worth $118 million. That’s less than the agency historically would have spent to build its own lunar lander.
NASA also hopes that CLPS will increase the frequency of robotic moon missions. IM-1 will be the second CLPS mission to launch, following Astrobotic’s Peregrine mission in January, and up to four more CLPS missions will do so by the end of the year. “The promise of the high cadence is really what’s compelling,” says Michelle Munk, acting chief architect of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “The ability to have a payload, improve upon it and fly it again, all within the span of a couple of years, is really a very unique opportunity.”
But in exchange for lower costs and faster turnaround times, NASA is letting private companies design and operate their own lunar landers, and the agency is taking on a higher risk of any one CLPS mission failing. Historically, only about five out of every nine attempted moon missions have succeeded. No commercial spacecraft has safely landed on another celestial body yet.
Last month the Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic launched its Peregrine moon lander with an assortment of NASA and non-NASA payloads, only for the spacecraft to suffer a critical anomaly soon after launch. Though Peregrine survived in space for a week and a half, it had leaked too much fuel to attempt a moon landing. Instead Astrobotic disposed of the spacecraft by making it reenter and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
“What we’ve asked industry to do—which is to soft-land and operate on the moon’s surface—is not easy at all. It’s extremely difficult,” said Joel Kearns, a deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in the January 31 media briefing.
Even lunar landers built by national space agencies have hit obstacles. On January 19 SLIM—a lander built by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)—reached the moon’s surface intact and successfully deployed two rovers, making Japan just the fifth country to soft-land on the moon’s surface. SLIM touched down at an angle that initially prevented sunlight from reaching its solar panels, however, which limited its available power. SLIM entered a dormant state on January 31, ahead of two weeks of dark, brutally cold lunar night.
Scouting Out the Lunar South Pole
At NASA’s request, IM-1 is targeting a landing site at Malapert A, a crater nestled in the moon’s south polar region that is close to a proposed landing site for NASA’s Artemis III mission. If Odie touches down successfully, IM-1 will mark just the second soft landing in the moon’s south polar region, following India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission.
Odie will be the first version of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C class of lunar landers to launch. These landers are designed to carry up to 130 kilograms (287 pounds) of payload to the lunar surface. IM-1 will deliver six payloads on behalf of NASA, as well as an assortment of private payloads.
One of the NASA payloads onboard, called SCALPSS (Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies), promises to deliver some of the best data of their kind since Apollo. It consists of four cameras that ring the bottom of the lander and will image the vehicle’s exhaust plume as it interacts with the lunar surface during descent. After landing, SCALPSS will take two-dimensional and three-dimensional images of most of the area beneath Odie to map the crater carved out by the rocket plume. Images from SCALPSS should help inform simulations of scaled-up moon landings, such as those planned for NASA’s Artemis program.
“As we start to emplace more and more vehicles on the surface of the moon, we really want to understand how close together they can land and what kind of protection landers themselves or assets may need going forward,” says Munk, who is also SCALPSS’s principal investigator.
As SCALPSS looks at Odie’s touchdown from below, an ambitious student-built payload will be looking at Odie from off to the side. EagleCam, built by a 26-student team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is a small CubeSat that will eject from Odie when the lander is 30 meters (100 feet) above the lunar surface. The CubeSat will then free-fall and smack into the lunar surface at about 10 meters per second (22 miles per hour).
No matter how the fallen CubeSat is oriented after landing, the Embry-Riddle team hopes that at least one of three wide-angle cameras onboard will capture a view of Odie touching down some 10 to 12 meters (33 to 39 feet) away.
EagleCam hopes to capture a 360-degree view from the moon—including the first third-person images ever taken of a spacecraft landing on another celestial body. EagleCam is also aiming to perform the first lunar demonstrations of Wi-Fi and an electric lens-cleaning technology.
“We’re almost getting to closure on this project—we’re almost tasting the science,” says Daniel Posada, a Ph.D. candidate at Embry-Riddle and EagleCam’s lead engineer. “But at the same time, we know the moon is harsh.”
Other payloads point to the Wild West future of commercial space: where marketing and technical partnerships will bleed into each other during the development of new spacecraft.
To help control the lander’s internal temperature, some of Odie’s body panels are covered in Omni-Heat Infinity, an aluminum-dotted polyester developed by Columbia Sportswear for its jacket linings. Omni-Heat was originally inspired by the thin, metallic “space blankets” that NASA has used since the 1960s to insulate spacecraft. To fly Omni-Heat Infinity onboard Odie, Columbia and Intuitive Machines had to check that both the material and the glue used to adhere it could withstand extreme temperature ranges and the vacuum of space.
“If it weren’t for this program [CLPS], it’s not clear to me that there would be an avenue for companies like Columbia to jump in and help out,” says Haskell Beckham, Columbia’s vice president of innovation. “We’ve learned stuff that’s come back and helped us do what we do.”