Aerospace & Defence

SpaceX launches private lunar mission ‘Odysseus’

15th February 2024
Harry Fowle

In an event that could redefine lunar exploration, Odysseus, a robotic lunar lander developed by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, has embarked on its journey to the moon, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in the early hours of 15th February, this mission marks a significant milestone in private space exploration.

Should everything proceed as planned, Odysseus is set to make history by landing near the moon's south pole on 22nd February, potentially becoming the first private spacecraft to achieve a lunar landing. This achievement holds particular significance for the United States, which has not seen a lunar surface mission since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Trent Martin, Vice President of Space Systems at Intuitive Machines, expressed the gravity of this mission during a prelaunch press conference: "It is a profoundly humbling moment for all of us at Intuitive Machines." He further elaborated on the mission's significance, "The opportunity to return the United States to the moon for the first time since 1972 demands a hunger to explore, and that's at the heart of everyone at Intuitive Machines."

Launch and anticipated landing

The Falcon 9 rocket's liftoff from Pad 39A at KSC on 15th February at 06:05 GMT was seamless, with the rocket's first stage returning for a precise landing at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station shortly after. This particular booster, now completing its 18th launch and landing, inches closer to SpaceX's reuse record.

Following a successful deployment into lunar transfer orbit, the 1,490-pound lander, comparable in size to a British telephone booth, made contact with mission control. Odysseus's journey towards the lunar orbit, culminating in a planned landing at Malapert A crater, near the moon's south pole, represents a pivotal moment for lunar exploration.

NASA's keen interest and future Artemis missions

NASA's involvement through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program underscores the mission's importance. By leveraging private sector capabilities, NASA aims to facilitate the delivery of scientific equipment to the moon more efficiently and cost-effectively. These instruments will support the Artemis program's objectives to establish a crewed base near the moon's south pole, utilising the region's water ice for life support and rocket propellant.

Odysseus carries six NASA instruments, part of a contract valued at $118 million, with an additional $11 million invested in developing the scientific hardware. These instruments include:

  • ROLSES (Radio Observations of the Lunar Surface Photoelectron Sheath) aims to delineate the electron plasma and radio frequencies in proximity to the IM-1's landing vicinity, shedding light on the lunar surface's electrical characteristics.
  • LRA (Laser Retro-Reflector Array), a compact assembly of reflectors, is designed to facilitate precise landings for future lunar missions by serving as a navigational beacon.
  • NDL (Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing) leverages LIDAR technology to capture highly accurate velocity and range data during Odysseus' descent, enhancing the precision of lunar landings.
  • SCALPSS (Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies) will investigate the interaction between the lander's exhaust plume and the lunar regolith, providing insights that could influence the design of future Artemis landers.
  • LN-1 (Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator), a compact radio navigation beacon, will showcase autonomous navigation technology for spacecraft, potentially laying the groundwork for a lunar GPS system.
  • RFMG (Radio Frequency Mass Gauge statement) employs radio waves to ascertain the remaining fuel in Odysseus' tank, a challenging task in the low-gravity conditions of space.

Additionally, Odysseus serves as a platform for six commercial payloads, including experiments by Columbia Sportswear to test their "Omni-Heat Infinity" material in space, art installations by Jeff Koons, and a secure repository designed to preserve human knowledge under catastrophic scenarios. Another notable payload, EagleCam, developed by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, aims to capture the lander's touchdown on the lunar surface, offering a unique perspective of the historic moment.

Learning from every launch

This mission follows Astrobotic's Peregrine lander attempt, highlighting the challenges of lunar missions, especially for private spacecraft. Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration at NASA's Science Mission Directorate, emphasised the educational value of these missions: "We've always viewed these initial CLPS deliveries as being kind of a learning experience, where we're all going to learn and react to how they go."

As the space community watches Odysseus's journey with bated breath, the mission represents not just a step towards revisiting the moon but a leap into a new era of space exploration powered by private innovation and international collaboration.

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