SpaceX To Launch Rocket Engine With Its Rocket As Part Of NASA’s Moon Mission

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After an eventful start to the year for its Moon exploration plans that saw the first U.S. attempt at a lander since the Apollo era make a valiant yet unsuccessful attempt to land on the celestial body, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is ready to give the Moon another shot. NASA, SpaceX and Intuitive Machines are due to launch Intuitive’s lunar lander to the Moon just after midnight tomorrow, and officials from the trio shared details for the launch at a media conference held earlier today.

SpaceX Explains Changes To Falcon 9 Launch Profile For Lunar Lander Mission

During the conference, Intuitive Machines explained that its lander is one of the few in the industry that is launching with a cryogenic propulsion system. This system uses super cold fuel in space, a technically complex endeavor that requires precise management of cold fluids in a difficult environment. However, it also means that the lander will reach the Moon sooner than other vehicles, with tomorrow’s launch expected to lead to a landing in a little over a week.

Since the lander uses a liquid methane powered engine, propellants have to be loaded on it while it is on the launch pad. This is because rocket propellants are typically stored at super cold temperatures to maintain density, and the longer they are stored inside a vehicle without the proper temperature and pressure control systems, the more propellant boils off in the surrounding atmosphere.

The Intuitive Machines lunar lander pictured inside SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Image: SpaceX

The lander will carry 12 payloads to the Moon, with six of these being for NASA and the remainder for private entities. After separating from the Falcon 9, the lander will operate its powerful rocket engine to set itself on a lunar journey and enter a 100 kilometer circular orbit around the Moon before initiating a powered descent for touchdown.

Its powerful engine also means that SpaceX had to rehearse the fuel loading process with Intuitive Machines before launch, and the firm upgraded the Falcon 9’s second stage to accommodate the vehicle. According to SpaceX’s William Gerstenmaier, his firm added a new disconnect to the side of the rocket and worked with valves on the lander to ensure smooth fuel loading.

Gerstenmaier shared additional details for the loading process as he commented:

“I think the thing for us that’s a little bit unique here is we’re actually loading the spacecraft with liquid methane and liquid oxygen inside the fairing. And we do that in the launch sequence, before we start loading the Falcon rocket. So we have to kind of get the propellants in the right conditions, with the right temperatures, so that they’ll warm up a little bit as we then load the rest of the Falcon rocket to go launch it.

“So with our typical Falcon launches, the payload is kind of a separate entity that’s on top and it doesn’t interact much with the launch sequence or the launch timings. But in this case, they’re very much integrated. So we load the liquid propellants into the IM, Intuitive Machines lander. And then we go load the rocket. So a little different sequence for us, and a little more intense for us, and a little bit longer timeline than we typically have.”

The Falcon 9 will lift off from the NASA Kennedy Space Center roughly an hour past midnight tomorrow. As of now, the lander is slated to land on the Moon on February 22nd, with little weather criteria threatening a successful launch.

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