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‘Nail-biting’ mission sees first private spacecraft land on the Moon

26 February 2024

In what has been described by scientists as “a giant leap forward for all of humanity”, a privately owned company has achieved the first Moon landing in over 50 years.

Image: Intuitive Machines
Image: Intuitive Machines

A Texas-based flight company, Intuitive Machines, has successfully landed the first privately owned spacecraft on the Moon. 

The Nova-C Odysseus lander touched down on the lunar surface on Thursday (22 February). The spacecraft landed near the Moon's south pole region, specifically aiming for Malapert A, a crater located approximately 186 miles from the lunar south pole.

The successful landing of Odysseus marks the first moon landing since the conclusion of NASA's Apollo programme more than 50 years ago.

Before the achievement by Intuitive Machines, controlled lunar landings had exclusively been the prerogative of government space agencies, from the US, the Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan.

Upon confirmation of the spacecraft's successful landing, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated: “What a triumph – Odysseus has taken the moon. This feat is a giant leap forward for all of humanity. Stay tuned."

The Nova-C Odysseus lander, standing at an impressive 14ft tall, autonomously navigated its descent from a moon-skimming orbit, carefully selecting a suitable landing spot amidst the rugged lunar terrain.

It touched down at 11:23pm, landing in closer proximity to the Moon's south pole than any previous spacecraft.
The landing, which occurred later than expected, was met with applause at the Intuitive Machines headquarters in Houston, Texas, as flight controllers confirmed the successful touchdown.

Intuitive Machines' CEO, Steve Altemus, expressed the team's excitement, stating, "I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface, and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon."

Odysseus was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, embarking on a journey of approximately 620,000 miles to reach its destination. 

NASA, the main sponsor of the mission, contributed $118 million to the spacecraft. 

Odysseus carries various payloads, including scientific instruments and experiments from both NASA, which contributed £93.5 million to the spacecraft, and commercial companies. 

Among the six commercial payloads carried aboard the spacecraft is a student camera system from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which was designed to capture selfie images as the robot initiated its descent, providing visual documentation of the landing process.

Scientists hope to utilise data collected from the mission further to understand the lunar environment, with a particular focus on the Moon's south pole, which holds potential resources for future human missions. 

They are optimistic about the potential discovery of layers of ice or even an Arctic-style permafrost, which could serve as a vital source of hydration for astronauts, facilitating longer missions.

"The ice is really important because if we can actually take advantage of that ice on the surface of the Moon, that's less materials we have to bring with us," explained Lori Glaze, NASA's Director Of Planetary Science.

"We could use that ice to convert it to water – drinkable drinking water – and we can extract oxygen and hydrogen for fuel and for breathing for the astronauts. So, it really helps us in human exploration."

The successful landing on Odysseus marks a pivotal moment in the history of space exploration. As the spacecraft begins its operations on the lunar surface, it paves the way for the eventual return of astronauts to the Moon within the next 10 years.

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