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After a failed moon landing mission last month, NASA is pinning its hopes on a second spacecraft — developed by a separate company — that will make the first moon landing for the United States in more than five decades.
The lunar lander, nicknamed Odysseus, or Odie for short, will fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday at 12:57 p.m. ET.
The rocket will propel the spacecraft into an oval orbit extending 380,000 kilometers (236,100 miles) around Earth. It will amount to “a high-energy fastball pitch to the moon,” as Intuitive Machines CEO Stephen Altemus put it. His Houston-based company developed Odysseus.
Once in Earth’s orbit, the lunar lander will detach from the rocket and venture out under its own power, using an onboard engine to propel itself on a direct trajectory to the moon’s surface.
Odysseus is expected to fly freely through space for just over a week, with an attempt to reach the moon’s surface on February 22.
If successful, Odysseus would become the first American spacecraft to soft-land on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
Why the Odysseus Mission Matters
The launch of this lunar lander comes a month after Peregrine, a vehicle that Astrobotic Technology developed with funding from NASA, failed in its mission. The Pittsburgh-based company revealed a groundbreaking fuel leak just hours after Peregrine’s Jan. 8 launch. The spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere as it returned to Earth ten days later.
But NASA has sponsored the creation of a small fleet of privately developed lunar landers as part of a program the space agency calls CLPS, or Commercial Lunar Payload Services.
“At CLPS, American companies used their own engineering and manufacturing practices rather than adhering to formal and traditional NASA procedures and NASA oversight,” explains Joel Kearns, the space agency’s deputy assistant administrator for exploration in the Science Mission Directorate from NASA. “CLPS is a test of that philosophy.”
The goal of the program is to develop lunar landers under relatively inexpensive, fixed-price contracts, hoping to use the spacecraft to give the U.S. presence on the moon as a new international space race develops.
China, India and Japan are the only countries to have soft landing vehicles on the moon in the 21st century. And while NASA remains confident that the US will be the first country to return humans to the moon’s surface, the global rush to land robotic spacecraft on the moon is reaching a fever pitch.
What sets NASA’s approach apart from others is the way it has embraced commercialization: the idea that multiple spacecraft can be developed with private industry competing for contracts cheaper and faster than if the space agency were to develop its own.
Altemus of Intuitive Machines calls this strategy ‘forced innovation’.
“Companies had to figure out ways to balance the risks (and) figure out ways to work around technical issues in a quick amount of time with less money to spend,” he told CNN. “So it really lowered the cost of access to the moon from the beginning so that it can be done…cheaper than what was done historically in the Apollo days.”
All told, Intuitive Machines could receive up to $118 million from NASA for this mission.
A stable of lunar landers
The NASA CLPS program isn’t dependent on every mission making a safe landing, but these initial landing attempts could set the tone and pace for the space agency’s renewed efforts to robotically explore the moon before attempting it later this decade returning astronauts to the moon’s surface.
Founded in 2013, Intuitive Machines will be the second CLPS program participant to attempt a moon landing after Astrobotic. (Two additional CLPS missions are planned for later in 2024.)
Of the four companies aiming to deliver lunar landers to the moon under the CLPS program, Intuitive Machines has received the most orders from NASA – with three lunar missions on the books.
What’s on board?
The Odysseus lander is a model called Nova-C, which Intuitive Machines describes as being about the size of a British telephone box with legs attached.
The company wants to land the spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, an area of great importance in the space race. It is suspected that this region is home to water ice that could one day be turned into drinking water for astronauts or even rocket fuel.
The South Pole is also the same lunar region where NASA plans to land astronauts later this decade.
The lander will be equipped with six NASA payloads: a suite of scientific instruments designed to test new technology or evaluate the lunar environment, such as a study of how the moon’s soil behaves during landing.
Also on board will be commemorative objects – including a sculpture representing the moon phases, designed in consultation with Jeff Koons – and technology from private sector companies, including Columbia Sportswear, which developed insulation material for the lander.
If all goes according to plan, Odysseus will operate on the moon for seven days while the lunar lander basks in the sun. But as the landing zone enters the Earth’s shadow and experiences lunar night, the spacecraft will be put to sleep.
The chances of success
The past year has brought a number of successful moon landings – carried out by India and Japan – as well as brutal setbacks, with Russia and the United States losing spacecraft in recent attempts.
Altemus estimates that Intuitive Machines has about an 80% chance of landing Odysseus safely on the moon.
“We have stood on the shoulders of everyone who has been tried before us,” he said, adding that Intuitive Machines tried to analyze the propulsion problem that plagued the Peregrine lander last month and ensured the same problem would not recur occur during Odysseus’ mission.
“We just have a fundamentally different architecture,” Altemus added.
But a successful effort would only be a starting point, he said.
“It’s not a one-time operation at all,” Altemus said. “We have built a lunar program with the goal of flying to the moon regularly.”
Establishing programs that can make regular robotic trips to the moon could facilitate a future where travel to the moon is common and cheap and encourages larger-scale projects, such as a functioning moon base with astronauts living and working there, according to NASA’s vision and his colleagues. partners.
CNN’s Kristin Fisher contributed to this report.
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