Lets travel back a few months in time when India’s grand Chandrayaan-3 moon mission was all set to be the first to touch down on the Moon’s South Pole. Right around the same time Russia sent out its Luna-25 mission, kicking off a race to the Moon.
Russia’s ambitious lunar mission didn’t go according to plan. It actually ended in a crash landing. And just recently Russia’s space agency spilled the beans on how it all went wrong.
Roscosmos recently shared that a problem with a part on the Luna-25 spacecraft led to it crashing into the moon in August. This unfortunate incident marked the conclusion of Russia’s initial moon mission in nearly five decades.
The part that was supposed to stop the engine from running didn’t work properly. This made the engine go on for much longer than it should have while the spacecraft was heading to the moon.
According to reports, because of this Luna-25 started spinning uncontrollably and on August 19 and eventually crashed on the moon.
This was disappointing for Russia because they wanted to reach the unexplored south pole of the moon before India did with its Chandrayaan-3 mission.
An uncrewed private spacecraft has reached the moon’s orbit, one day ahead of its attempt to land at the lunar south pole.
Intuitive Machines’ robotic spacecraft, which launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Feb. 15, beamed back a view of the near side of the moon to flight controllers just six days later. The craft took a speedier path through space to get to the moon than its predecessors over the past year.
On Wednesday, the spacecraft completed its planned main engine burn to get into a circular orbit about 57 miles above the moon. NASA and its contractor intend to broadcast the landing on their respective websites. The event is scheduled for 5:49 p.m. ET Feb. 22.
“Odysseus continues to be in excellent health,” the company said on X, formerly known as Twitter, referring to its name for the lander.
If Intuitive Machines touches down without crashing, it will be the first U.S. spacecraft to complete the quarter-million-mile journey since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Though NASA isn’t controlling this spaceflight and doesn’t own Odysseus, the agency is paying the company $118 million to deliver six instruments to the moon, among other customers’ payloads.
The proposed landing site is Malapert A crater, just under 200 miles from the south pole. Several spacefarers have set their sights on this general region because of its ice. The natural resource, thought to be buried in permanently shadowed craters, is coveted because it could supply drinking water, oxygen, and rocket fuel for future space voyages.
Throughout history, about half of lunar landing attempts have failed, and only one out of three missions that tried to touch down on the moon in 2023 made it without a crash.
“What we’ve asked industry to do, which is soft land and operate on the moon’s surface, is not easy at all. It’s extremely difficult, as you probably have seen for lunar landing attempts just in the month of January,” said Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, during a call with reporters.
No commercial company has achieved this feat so far, although a few have tried.
Landing on the moon is hard because its exosphere — an extremely thin atmosphere of gasses barely held by the moon’s gravity — provides virtually no drag to slow a spacecraft down as it approaches the ground. Furthermore, there are no GPS systems on the moon to help guide a craft to its landing spot.
Despite numerous failures anticipated from the new, inexperienced players in space exploration, people can expect to be dazzled by their cosmic views, such as the stunning Intuitive Machines images of the past week.
“Pretty cool when a lunar lander takes a picture of its ride to space!” SpaceX said in a post on X last week. “Wishing @Int_Machines and IM-1 a safe and soft landing on the Moon.”
We might be watching a historic moon landing today.
Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 spacecraft, the uncrewed Odysseus, could potentially land on the surface of the Moon on Feb. 22 at around 4:24 p.m. ET, after an eight-day journey through space. While we can’t be completely sure that the landing will be successful, on Wednesday Intuitive Machines said Odysseus “continues to be in excellent health in lunar orbit.”
The spacecraft is expected to land near Malapert A crater in the south pole region of the moon.
Odysseus launched on Feb. 15 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Its landing would make the first commercial moon landing and is quite the feat. Landing on the moon is an infamously difficult task for a variety of reasons, including the lack of GPS systems and atmospheric drag. Only five countries, including the former Soviet Union, the U.S., China, India, and Japan, have landed on the moon without a significant wreck.
A small American company’s robotic spacecraft has brought the United States back to the surface of the moon for the first time in more than a half-century.
Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based space company, landed on Thursday, becoming the first commercial company to reach the moon intact. The unprecedented achievement is a win for NASA, which has invested $2.6 billion in contracts with Intuitive Machines and several other vendors to deliver instruments to the moon over the next four years.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. A few hours before the landing, flight controllers discovered the spacecraft’s laser rangefinders, which help it avoid hazards on the ground, weren’t working. The team decided to take one more lap around the moon, which bought engineers a couple more hours to troubleshoot the problem. During that orbit, they uploaded a software patch to use onboard NASA lasers, which hadn’t previously been tested in space.
Then, there were some communication challenges, but NASA was quick to call the landing a success, even before a photo was beamed back to Earth.
“Today, for the first time in the history of humanity, a commercial company — an American company — launched and led the voyage up there,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a pre-recorded message during the broadcast. “Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships.”
The moon lander dubbed Odysseus touched down on Malapert A crater, about 200 miles from the lunar south pole, just before 6:30 p.m. ET. Many nations and private ventures have set their sights on the region because of its ice, thought to be buried in the polar craters. The natural resource is coveted because it could supply drinking water, air, and rocket fuel for future missions, ushering a new era in spaceflight.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s former head of science, once described each of the first CLPS endeavors as “taking a shot on goal.” The sports analogy means not every attempt will be victorious, but overall the program will give NASA a lot of chances to achieve its moon-to-Mars goals. By outsourcing NASA’s lunar deliveries — rather than fully owning each mission — the agency believes it will save money. The contract with Intuitive Machines for this mission was $118 million.
“We don’t know how many of the early attempts will be successful,” said Joel Kearns, NASA science’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, during a news conference in November. “But I can tell you that these American companies are technically strong and rigorous, savvy, they’re resourceful, and they’re driven to be successful. They want to secure that first mover advantage in generating this new lunar economy.”
But observers have questioned how cost-effective the initiative will truly be, given the riskiness of flying on inexperienced spacelines. In January, Astrobotic Technologies, the first of the CLPS vendors, tried to get to the moon, but never reached lunar orbit due to a detrimental fuel leak. NASA spent $108 million on that mission and lost five payloads in the process.
“If we’re flying missions at one-tenth of the cost of a NASA mission, and we fail two of them, we still get eight missions for that same price,” Kearns said in a pre-recorded statement during the landing broadcast. “Even with one or two or three failures, this is still a very economical proposition.”
The likelihood of success, especially for novice space programs, is still slim. Historically, less than half of all missions to land on the moon have arrived without crashing. The lunar exosphere — an extremely thin atmosphere of gasses barely held by the moon’s gravity — provides virtually no drag to slow a spacecraft down as it approaches the ground. Furthermore, there are no GPS systems on the moon to help guide a craft to its landing spot. Engineers have to compensate for these shortcomings from 239,000 miles away.
Over the past five years, the private sector has tried and failed. An Israeli nonprofit and company collaborated in 2019 on the so-called Beresheet moon mission, which crashed on the lunar surface after an orientation component malfunctioned. Last April, Japanese startup ispace ran out of fuel on its descent and ultimately crashed. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander never made it that far and ultimately broke apart as it crashed back to Earth.
But Intuitive Machines’ landing could instill confidence in the burgeoning lunar economy.
“I know this was a nail biter, but we are on the surface, and we are transmitting,” said Stephen Altemus, Intuitive Machines’ CEO. “Welcome to the moon.”