Moon lander Odysseus mission to be cut short after sideways touchdown
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[February 27, 2024]
By Steve Gorman and Joey Roulette
(Reuters) -Flight control engineers expect to lose contact with the
private U.S. moon lander Odysseus on Tuesday morning, cutting short the
mission five days after its sideways touchdown, the company behind the
spacecraft, Intuitive Machines, said on Monday.
It remained to be seen how much scientific data might be lost as a
result of the shortened lifespan of Odysseus, which according to
previous estimates from the company and its biggest customer, NASA, was
supposed to operate on the moon for seven to 10 days.
The company's forecast for a premature end to the mission came as new
details emerged about testing shortcuts and human error that led to an
in-flight failure of the spacecraft's laser-guided range finders ahead
of its landing last Thursday near the moon's south pole.
An Intuitive Machines official said the loss of the range finders
stemmed from the company's decision to forgo a test firing of the laser
system to save time and money during pre-flight checks of Odysseus at
NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"There were certainly things we could've done to test it and actually
fire it. They would've been very time-consuming and very costly," Mike
Hansen, the company's head of navigation systems, told Reuters in an
interview on Saturday. "So that was a risk as a company that we
acknowledged and took that risk."
On Friday Intuitive Machines had disclosed that the laser range finders
- designed to feed altitude and forward-velocity readings to Odysseus'
autonomous navigation system - were inoperable because company engineers
neglected to unlock the lasers' safety switch before launch on Feb. 15.
The safety lock, akin to a firearm's safety switch, can only be disabled
The range-finder glitch, detected just hours before the final descent,
forced flight controllers to send Odysseus into an extra lunar orbit
while they improvised a work-around to avoid what could have been a
SOLAR POWER LIMITED
Hansen, the engineer who crafted the software "patch" that solved the
problem, said the company had yet to determine whether the ad-libbed
navigational solution, which employed an experimental NASA-supplied
system on the lander, might have been a factor in the spacecraft's
Newly released images taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
spacecraft showed Odysseus as a tiny speck on the moon's surface, within
a mile (1.5 km) of its intended landing site near a crater called
Intuitive Machines also released images Odysseus captured during its
descent, but there were none yet from the surface.
The company said during its first post-landing news briefing on Friday
that Odysseus caught the bottom of one of its six landing legs on the
uneven lunar surface on final descent and tipped over, coming to rest
horizontally, apparently propped up on a rock.
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Intuitive Machines' Odysseus lunar lander captures a wide field of
view image of Schomberger crater on the Moon, in this handout
picture released February 23, 2024. Intuitive Machines/Handout via
Intuitive Machines executives speculated that the forward speed of
the spacecraft on landing, about twice as fast as expected, may have
been a factor in stumbling. But it remained uncertain whether use of
the original laser range finders might have made a difference.
In any case, Odysseus' sideways posture substantially limited how
much its solar panels were exposed to sunlight, necessary for
recharging its batteries. Moreover, two of its antennae were pointed
toward the ground, impeding communications with the lander, the
company said on Friday.
Intuitive Machines executives said then that its engineering teams
would need more time to assess how the overall mission would be
In an update posted online on Monday, the Houston-based company
said: "Flight controllers intend to collect data until the lander's
solar panels are no longer exposed to light. Based on Earth and Moon
positioning, we believe flight controllers will continue to
communicate with Odysseus until Tuesday morning," five days after
NASA, which has several research instruments aboard the vehicle, had
said those payloads were designed to operate for seven days on solar
energy before the sun set over the polar landing site.
Company executives had told reporters on Friday, the day after
Odysseus landed, that its payloads would be able to function for
about nine or 10 days under a "best-case scenario."
Shares of Intuitive Machines plunged 35% on Monday.
Despite its less-than-ideal touchdown, Odysseus became the first
U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon since NASA's last crewed Apollo
mission to the lunar surface brought astronauts Gene Cernan and
Harrison Schmitt there in 1972.
It was also the first lunar landing ever by a commercially
manufactured and operated space vehicle, and the first under NASA's
Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to Earth's natural
satellite this decade.
Intuitive Machines has said it spent roughly $100 million on the
lander, and received $118 million from NASA under the agency's
Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, a low-budget
effort to spur flights to the moon by private enterprise.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Joey Roulette in
Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler, Sandra Maler and Gerry Doyle)