Moon lander tipped sideways on lunar surface but ‘alive and well’

Intuitive Machines' Odysseus spacecraft

Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus spacecraft passes over the near side of the Moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21, 2024, in this handout image released February 22, 2024. Intuitive Machines/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

(Reuters) -The moon lander dubbed Odysseus is “alive and well” but resting on its side a day after its white-knuckle touchdown as the first private spacecraft ever to reach the lunar surface, and the first from the U.S. since 1972, the company behind the vehicle said on Friday.

The vehicle is believed to have caught one of its six landing feet on the lunar surface near the end of its final descent and tipped over, coming to rest sideways, propped up on a rock, an analysis of data by flight engineers showed, according to Houston-based Intuitive Machines .

Still, all indications are that Odysseus “is stable near or at our intended landing site” close to a crater called Malapert A in the region of the moon’s south pole, said Stephen Altemus, chief executive officer of Intuitive Machines, which built and flew the lander.

“We do have communications with the lander,” and mission control operators are sending commands to the vehicle, Altemus said, adding that they were working to obtain the first photo images from the lunar surface from the landing site.

A brief update on the mission’s status posted to the company’s website earlier on Friday described Odysseus “alive and well.”

The company had said shortly after touchdown on Thursday that radio signals indicated Odysseus, a 13-foot-tall hexagonal cylinder, had landed in an upright position, but Atlemus said that faulty conclusion was based on telemetry from before the landing.

Although the lander’s horizontal position is far from ideal, company officials said that all but one of the six NASA science and technology payloads were mounted on portions of the vehicle left exposed and receptive to communications, “which is very good for us,” Altemus said.

“We think we can meet all the needs of the commercial payloads” as well, he added.

Less promising was the fact that two of the spacecraft’s antennae were left pointed at the surface, a circumstance that will limit communications with the lander, Altemus said.

Also the functionality of a solar energy panel on the top of Odysseus, now facing the wrong way, is uncertain, but a second array on the side of the spacecraft appears to be in working order, and the spacecraft’s batteries had been fully charged, he said.

Intuitive Machines mission director Tim Crain said the spacecraft, burning a propulsion fuel of liquid methane and liquid oxygen for the first time in space, “performed flawlessly” during its flight to the moon.

The uncrewed robot spacecraft reached the lunar surface on Thursday after a nail-biting final approach and descent in which a problem surfaced with the lander’s navigation system, requiring engineers on the ground to employ an untested work-around at the 11th hour.

It also took some time after an anticipated radio blackout to re-establish communications with the spacecraft and determine its fate some 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth.

When contact was finally renewed, the signal was faint, confirming that the lander had touched down but leaving mission control immediately uncertain as to the precise condition and position of the vehicle, company officials said during a webcast of the event on Thursday evening.

Crain said he believed that the payloads aboard the lander would be able to operate for about nine or 10 days, after which sun will have set on the polar landing site.

Shares of Intuitive Machines tumbled 30% in extended trade on Friday, wiping out all their rally in Friday’s market session after the company said its moon lander had tipped over.

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