As Feared, Intuitive Machines’ Lunar Lander Tipped Over During A Successful Soft Landing

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After its maiden launch of the Nova C Odysseus lunar lander from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida put Intuitive Machines on the face of U.S. space, converge, the firm has confirmed that its lander has achieved a near soft landing on the Moon’s surface. Odysseus reached the Moon yesterday, with a landing attempt on time in the early evening Eastern time. However, the final bit of the lander’s approach to the lunar surface, described as the most harrowing seconds by the firm’s chief technology officer, was nail biting for everyone involved due to a brief communications blackout.

Intuitive Machines’ CEO Stephen Altemus confirmed in a teleconference moments back that Odysseus landed softly, even as it might have tipped over during landing. The lander touched down at 6 miles per hour while traveling laterally close to walking speed.

Intuitive Machines Makes History With First Soft Landing Of U.S. & Private Lander

The gist of the executive’s statements appears to indicate that a problem with the lander’s navigation sensors might have led to an incorrect orientation (or attitude) on the Moon’s surface. During Odysseus’s journey, a last minute change to the landing profile involved an emergency switch to a NASA laser radar payload that’s on Odysseus to guide it to the surface for a landing.

According to Altemus, sensor readings initially led his firm to believe that the lander had landed upright.  He shared that it is possible that after it tipped over a rock, Odysseus landed on its side, and initial sensor readings led the team in Texas to believe that its fuel was at the bottom of the tanks instead of on their sides. However, roughly a day after its landing, Odysseus’s mission control is near certain that while the lander did complete a soft landing, it is now on its side.

NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator Joel Kearns stressed that the agency was aware that working with the private sector for lunar landing capabilities would be risky as NASA would outsource key operational areas such as spacecraft design and a soft landing in the “unusual territory of the South Pole.”

Intuitive Machines’ CEO demonstrates what the firm believes is the lander’s current orientation. Image: NASA TV

Intuitive’s CTO Tim Crain shared that there are high chances of the lander vertically touching down as its flight was in a ‘stable phase’ for most of its final moments of approaching the surface. When pressed further, Altemus added that his company had used the power being generated by the solar arrays to wager a guess about the lander’s attitude. The panel that might be ‘touching down’ on the Moon did not host any operational payloads, and therefore, it should not compromise any scientific goals of the IM-1 mission.

According to Crain, before Intuitive Machines turned off flight instruments for power management, it managed to measure lunar gravity. These measurements show that the side of the lander was pointing toward the sky.

The fact that NASA’s laser radar was used also helped teams to qualify the instrument that had flown on Odysseus as an experimental payload. NASA’s Associate Administrator of Space Technology, Dr. Prasun Desai, revealed that the Odysseus landing had enabled his agency to certify the radar to a high readiness level.

More details about Odysseus’s orientation and condition will become available after Intuitive Machines receives the first images from the Moon. Landing site accuracy should be within a couple of kilometers, according to Train, and more data from Arizona State University over the weekend will provide more details. The lander’s incorrect orientation means that its antennas are pointing to the Moon and making communications difficult, shared Altemus.

A camera called EagleCam developed by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University placed at the top of the lander can share some images if it is successfully jettisoned. According to its CEO, Intuitive will try to eject the camera soon after plans to fire it during landing were scrapped to accommodate the laser radar.

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