Scientists and private contractors plan to extend the Odysseus probe’s mission into a cold “lunar night,” betting against the odds that the moon’s dark phase below -300 degrees Fahrenheit will not kill the craft.
The announcement came during a mission update Wednesday that included stunning fisheye lens images of the historic NASA-funded spacecraft’s lunar landing.
Odysseus will soon go dark during a two-week-long lunar night, NASA contractor Intuitive Machines said, losing access to solar power and enduring chills that could critically degrade not only the probe’s batteries but also its internal hardware.
Described by the CEO of Intuitive Machines as a successful ‘exploration and pilot mission,’ the $118 million Odysseus made a rocky landing that alarmed mission control, breaking off pieces of its landing gear upon impact with the surface of the moon.
But, as one of NASA’s top scientists explained during today’s live event, broadcast from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Odysseus is a “badass little guy.”
The lander, which made the first “soft landing” of a US spacecraft on the Moon in 50 years, has since transmitted 350 megabytes of scientific and technical data to Earth.
NASA scientists and private contractor Intuitive Machines plan to extend the lunar mission of their Odysseus probe into a cold “lunar night” that could kill the craft. Described as an “exploration” mission, the spacecraft had initially made a rocky “soft” landing (above) that alarmed mission control.
The cold new announcement emerged during a mission update on Wednesday that included stunning fisheye lens images of the historic spacecraft’s landing on the lunar surface (above).
Intuitive Machines CEO and co-founder Steve Altemus described the goals of Odysseus, or ‘Odie’ for short, as essentially a test of new systems for lunar travel and to explore new, more challenging lunar landing sites, ahead of plans to NASA to return humans to the moon in 2025.
“We did it,” Altemus said at the livestreamed press event.
“What we’ve done with this mission,” Altemus continued, “is fundamentally change the economics of landing on the moon.”
The CEO described his company’s goals with the $118 million NASA-funded lunar project as “trying to create a business that is a national asset for the United States.”
The CEO of Intuitive Machines described Odysseus’ goals as essentially a test of new systems for lunar travel, to new and more challenging landing sites, ahead of NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon in 2025: ” We did it”.
Odysseus was funded in part by NASA, which paid to bring scientific equipment on board but also transported other objects, including 125 miniature sculptures by pop artist Jeff Koons.
The Odysseus spacecraft, which launched Feb. 15 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was tasked with carrying six NASA scientific instruments to a site near the South Pole. moon.
Altemus said that despite some setbacks, all six payloads eventually became operational, providing guidance, navigation and propulsion data, along with other key measurements needed for a full “mission reconstruction” to complete their exploration.
The Odysseus mission, called IM-1, was funded as part of the US space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative and its Artemis campaign to return US astronauts to the moon.
Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, took the lead in explaining how challenging Odie’s mission was and why the spacecraft had broken its landing gear during landing.
“This is a very complex task,” Kearns said.
“We periodically get questions that, since Americans landed on the moon in the 1960s and we haven’t been back in a long time, ‘why is it really so hard?’
“To get to the surface of the Moon, since there is no air on it,” the NASA administrator explained, “in fact, you have to travel in a rocket from the fast speed of being in orbit to being without speed in a predetermined point on the surface at a predetermined elevation.
With no atmosphere to provide friction or drag, much less a parachute landing, the Odysseus had to reverse its own thrusters and perfectly mathematically calculate its deceleration before impact.
“You actually have to carry with you on the rocket all the fuel you need to slow it down,” Kearns said, fuel that constantly changes the mass of the ship as it burns.
“A soft landing on the Moon is a great achievement,” he said.
Odysseus landed at a latitude of about 80 degrees south, near the Moon’s South Pole, recording a wealth of data as he one day helped carry out robotic missions and more advanced human missions to the Moon.
But the spacecraft landed a short distance away at a higher elevation than its intended target, the Malapert A crater, 185 miles from the moon’s south pole.
The result, on February 22, 2024, was an impact against the lunar surface at a speed slightly higher than expected.
Above, Tim Crain, chief technology officer and co-founder of NASA contractor Intuitive Machines, illustrates details about the ‘Odie’ probe landing and resting against a rocky slope on the moon’s surface. The lander now rests at a 30-degree angle, Crain and others said.
Two NASA scientists and two Intuitive Machines CEOs spoke at today’s event
Intuitive Machines CTO Tim Crain praised his company’s small but “efficient” team. “Every person was essential,” Crain said.
“Everyone was really hands-on. Let’s maximize the time we have available on this asset while we can,”
“At the time I attended this briefing,” Crain noted, “we had collected more than 350 megabytes of scientific and engineering data on this mission.”
NASA’s CLPS project scientist, astrophysicist and planetary scientist Sue Lederer, elaborated on the quality and usefulness of that data.
Odie’s ROLSES sensor, short for “radio spectrometer for measuring electron density,” said NASA planetary scientist Sue Lederer, not only “detected radio noise frequencies from Earth,” but helped provide data consistent with the theory of a “radioquiet Sun”. like a ‘bonus’
Lederer noted that in addition to its primary mission of collecting data for future moon landings, Odie’s team helped contribute to basic “additional science” about our solar system.
The ROLSES sensor, short for “radio spectrometer for measuring electron density,” he said, not only “detected radio noise frequencies from the Earth,” but helped provide data consistent with the theory of a “quiet radio sun.’
But there’s even more additional science in store for Odysseus, as its mission control handlers at NASA and Intuitive Machines plan to see if they can manage to reboot the device after it goes dark in the middle of the upcoming two-week lunar night.
The CEO of Intuitive Machines said that within hours, his team would “put Odie to bed for the cold moon night,” which lasts half the moon’s month-long rotation cycle.
The company’s chief financial officer, Crain, explained that the probe had not been expressly designed to withstand temperatures potentially of -387 degrees Fahrenheit during a lunar night, and that its electronics could “basically crack under thermal stress.”
Crain noted that the internal chemistry of the lunar lander’s batteries may also not survive the cold night, potentially warping when frozen.
But NASA’s Sue Lederer said Odysseus had surprised the team with its toughness and she wouldn’t bet against the “tough little guy.”
Intuitive CEO Altemus expects more data to be attempted “in a couple of weeks.”
“There are no eulogies planned” for Odie at the moment, he said. The team’s logic for achieving these goals, he said, in short, was “Why not try it?”