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Intrepid spacecraft beams back vivid photo before moon landing

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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.

Odysseus, the Intuitive Machines’ moon lander, takes a photo of Earth in space.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

Already this year, another NASA contractor, Astrobotic Technologies, tried to get to the moon but never reached lunar orbit due to a detrimental fuel leak discovered early in the flight. In January, Japan became the fifth nation ever to land a spacecraft on the moon, but not without incident: It got there upside down and suffered significant power-generation problems.

NASA selected Intuitive Machines as one of several vendors for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative to explore the moon over the next few years. The program has recruited the private sector to help deliver cargo, conduct experiments, and demonstrate new technology, as well as send back crucial data. Through these contracts, NASA wants to see a regular cadence of moon missions to prepare for astronauts’ return to the moon in 2026 or later.

“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.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket upper stage deploys Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, aka “Odysseus,” in space.
Credit: SpaceX

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.”





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NASA To Make Major Announcement On Its Ambitious Mars Sample Return Mission Today; Watch Live

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NASA is hosting a press conference on April 15 for a big announcement regarding its Mars Sample Return Mission. The agency said that the speakers will discuss the next steps of the mission aimed at retrieving samples collected by the Perseverance rover on Mars at 10:30 pm IST. The speakers include NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson and Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, Nicky Fox.

You can watch the teleconference live at NASA TV and its official website here. The discussion will be based on the report by the Independent Review Board which was set up in 2023 to evaluate the technical, cost, and schedule plans prior to confirmation of the mission’s design.

ALSO SEE: NASA Shares Views Of Perseverance Rover’s Sample Collection In Latest Milestone On Mars

The Mars sample return program, apart from its complexities, has a major problem to deal with – a supposedly ‘unrealistic’ budget. Ever since its landing in the Jezero crater on Mars, the Perseverance rover has collected two dozen soil and rock samples which are waiting to be shipped to Earth early next decade.

The samples are being collected because scientists believe they might have signs of ancient life on the red planet since it used to have oceans billions of years ago.

According to NASA’s plan, it will send a lander with a rocket to Mars which will transfer the samples to an orbiter built by ESA. This orbiter will then send the samples back to Earth. All this is expected to cost between $8 to $11 billion, the review board said in its report released last September. In the upcoming announcement, NASA might clear the air regarding the feasibility of the mission and if it is worth pursuing.

ALSO SEE: What Does A Solar Eclipse On Mars Look Like? NASA Answers With Breathtaking Views





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Mess Created By NASA Will Be Inspected By ESA’s Hera Mission; Here’s All About It

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is gearing up for an ambitious mission called Hera, set to launch in October 2024. The mission’s target will be Dimorphos, an asteroid orbiting the larger space rock Didymos.

Dimorphos gained international attention when it became the subject of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. On September 26, 2022, NASA’s spacecraft intentionally collided with Dimorphos to test whether altering its orbit was a viable method of planetary defense.

Now, ESA’s Hera mission is poised to rendezvous with Dimorphos in 2026, building on the groundwork laid by DART. The objectives are ambitious: Hera will delve into the Didymos binary asteroid system, conducting the very first assessment of its internal properties. Additionally, it will meticulously analyse the aftermath of DART’s kinetic impactor test, including studying the crater left behind by the collision.

Hera represents a significant milestone in asteroid deflection technology, paving the way for future planetary defense strategies. By conducting a detailed post-impact survey of Dimorphos, Hera aims to transform the DART mission into a well-understood and repeatable defense technique.

ALSO SEE: NASA’s DART Mission’s Second Observer Captures Unsettling Images Of An Asteroid Crash

What makes Hera even more groundbreaking is its role as humankind’s first probe to rendezvous with a binary asteroid system. It will also be armed with innovative technologies, including autonomous navigation and low-gravity proximity operations.

Using ground-based telescopes, scientists know that DART changed Dimorphos’s velocity but they need a close-up inspection to determine the change in its mass. The HERA mission also includes two cubesats – Milani and Juventas – that will collectively investigate Dimorphos’s composition and change in its properties.

NASA ruled the DART mission a success after the spacecraft was able to change Dimorphos’s orbit around Didymos by 33 minutes. Scientists believe that this technology could one day help us deflect a planet-killing asteroid if one heads toward Earth someday.

ALSO SEE: Collision Of NASA’s DART With Asteroid Dimorphos Changed Its Shape; Finding Excites Scientists





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Unexpected Discovery In A Nebula 3,800 Light-Years Away Leaves Astronomers Surprised

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Astronomers peering into the depths of space have stumbled upon a celestial spectacle unlike any other – a stellar pair locked in a cosmic dance, surrounded by a mesmerizing cloud of gas and dust. But what sets this duo, dubbed HD 148937, apart from the stellar crowd is a remarkable tale of cosmic collision and rebirth.

Located a staggering 3800 light-years away in the Norma constellation, HD 148937 is home to two stars of immense magnitude, each boasting a mass far surpassing that of our Sun.

Yet, upon closer inspection, astronomers were met with a perplexing revelation – these stars, once thought to be twins, harbor striking differences. One star appears 1.5 million years younger and inexplicably magnetic, while its counterpart bears the marks of age and lacks magnetic allure.

Utilizing data collected over nine years from cutting-edge instruments like PIONIER, GRAVITY, and FEROS, astronomers uncovered a violent history. The evidence pointed to a tumultuous past, wherein three stars once roamed the system, until two stars collided, birthing the stunning nebula that now envelops HD 148937.

ALSO SEE: NASA’s Hubble Telescope Captures ‘Fierce And Fabulous’ Tarantula Nebula Brimming With Baby Stars

“The two inner stars merged in a violent manner, creating a magnetic star and throwing out some material, which created the nebula,” professor Hugues Sana, lead investigator explained in an official statement.

This cosmic ballet not only reshaped the system’s destiny but also shed light on a longstanding mystery in astronomy – the origin of magnetic fields in massive stars. While magnetic fields are common in stars like our Sun, their presence in more massive counterparts has long puzzled astronomers. The discovery of HD 148937 provides compelling evidence that such magnetic fields can arise from stellar mergers, a phenomenon observed only in theory until now.

“Magnetism in massive stars isn’t expected to last very long compared to the lifetime of the star, so it seems we have observed this rare event very soon after it happened,” said Abigail Frost, lead author of the new paper published in the journal Science.

ALSO SEE: ESO’s Very Large Telescope Captures ‘Gloomy Portrait’ Of Cone Nebula, A Staggering Star Factory





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