Houston-based space company Intuitive Machines is gearing up for an actual moonshot at the end of this month, when it’ll try to land a spacecraft named Odysseus on the lunar surface — ideally without it breaking in the process. The mission follows Astrobotic’s unsuccessful attempt in January; that company’s lander, Peregrine, never made it to the moon due to a propellant leak that cut its journey short. Peregrine’s failure means Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission could be the first ever commercial moon landing if it makes it there intact.
Intuitive Machines is hoping to make its landing attempt on February 22, targeting the Malapert A crater near the moon’s south pole for touchdown. This arrival date is dependent on Odysseus, one of the company’s Nova-C class landers, leaving Earth atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sometime between February 14 and February 16. The launch window opens at 12:57AM ET on Wednesday.
Odysseus is the first of three Nova-C landers Intuitive Machines plans to send to the moon this year, all of which will have commercial payloads on board and NASA instruments as contracted under the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. At 14 feet tall (4.3 meters), the lander is roughly the size of a giraffe and can carry about 280 pounds (130kg) of cargo. Its mission, if it nails a soft landing, will be a short but potentially valuable one for informing future excursions to the region, including NASA’s upcoming crewed Artemis missions. Orbiting probes have found evidence of water ice at the lunar south pole, which could be used for astronaut subsistence and even fuel, making it an area of high interest for human exploration.
The solar-powered craft and any functional equipment it’s carrying are only expected to be in working condition for about a week before the onset of lunar night, a 14-day period of frigid darkness that the company says will leave the lander inoperable. But while everything’s up and running, the various instruments will gather data at the surface. NASA awarded Intuitive Machines a $77 million contract for the delivery of its payloads back in 2019, and there are six NASA instruments now hitching a ride on Odysseus.
One, the Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), will “function as a permanent location mark” from its position on the moon after landing to help incoming spacecraft determine their distance from the surface, according to NASA. The lander is also carrying the Navigation Doppler LIDAR for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL), a sensor that measures velocity and altitude to better guide the descent, and the Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1) to support communication and autonomous navigation in future missions.
NASA is also sending instruments to study surface plumes — everything that gets kicked up when the lander touches down — along with radio waves and the effects of space weather. That includes the Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS), which will capture images of these dust plumes, and the Radio wave Observation at the Lunar Surface of the photoElectron Sheath (ROLSES) instrument.
The rest of the payloads on board Odysseus are commercial. Columbia Sportswear worked with Intuitive Machines to incorporate the brand’s Apollo-inspired Omni-Heat Infinity thermal reflective material, which is being used for this mission to help protect the cryogenic propulsion tank, according to Intuitive Machines. Students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University developed a camera system dubbed the EagleCam that will attempt to separate from the lander before it touches down and snap a picture of the moment from a third-person point of view. EagleCam is also equipped with an experimental dust-removal system.
There are even some Jeff Koons sculptures heading to the moon, which will have physical and NFT counterparts back on Earth. In Koons’ Moon Phase piece, 125 small stainless steel sculptures of the moon at different phases are encased in a clear cube made by 4Space, with the names of important historical figures from around the world listed below each sphere. The International Lunar Observatory Association, based in Hawaii, and Canadensys Aerospace are sending a 1.3-pound dual-camera system called ILO-X, with which they’ll attempt to capture wide and narrow field images of the Milky Way from the moon.
Odysseus is also carrying small discs called “Lunagrams” from Galactic Legacy Labs that contain messages from Earth, including text, images, audio and archives from major databases such as the Arch Mission Foundation and the English-language version of Wikipedia. Similar archival materials were sent to space with Peregrine last month. The information technology company Lonestar plans to demonstrate its Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) by storing data on the lander and transmitting documents ( including the US Declaration of Independence) between Earth and the moon. It’ll follow this up with a prototype mini data center on Intuitive Machines’ next launch.
Now, the pressure is on for the Odysseus Nova-C lander to actually get to the lunar surface safely. This year started off rocky for moon missions, with the failure of Astrobotic’s Peregrine and a descent hiccup that caused JAXA’s SLIM spacecraft to faceplant into the lunar surface (though the latter was miraculously able to resume functions to some degree after a few days). Intuitive Machines will have other chances to get it right if it doesn’t this time — it has multiple missions already booked up — but only one private lander can be “first.”