Another company prepares to claim Moon history

Texas-based space flight company Intuitive Machines will pick up where the failed Peregrine mission left off when its IM-1 mission launches to the Moon later this month, hoping to be the first commercial organisation to land on the lunar surface.

Peregrine was the failed attempt by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to place a lunar lander carrying a payload of scientific instruments and commemorative items on the Moon’s surface.

If successful, it would have marked the first time a US ‘flagged’ vehicle had set down on the Moon in 52 years, and the first time any private company had done so.

The nova-c lunar lander is seen in at intuitive machines headquarters in houston, before it shipped to nasa’s kennedy space center in florida for integration with a spacex falcon 9 rocket for launch.
The Nova-C lunar lander ‘Odysseus’ Credit: Intuitive Machines

But a propellant glitch saw Peregrine run short on fuel, resulting in its fiery return to the South Pacific Ocean.

Intuitive Machines now has a chance to snatch history in the aftermath of Peregrine’s failure.

Like Peregrine, it will carry a payload of scientific instruments to the Moon as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

CLPS is an initiative of NASA to bring greater commercial participation into its space programs through US$2.6 billion of contracts spread across 14 private suppliers.

While no instruments have yet been delivered to the Moon, NASA executives have deemed the CLPS initiative a success at developing a “lunar economy”.

“These companies are now viable partners in the aerospace industry,” said CLPS’s program manager Chris Culbert this week.

“We’re proud of what they’ve accomplished, even before we’ve achieved our primary goal of delivering payloads to the Moon.”

IM-1 and the Odysseus lander

Officially scheduled for lift-off no earlier than mid-February, 6 NASA instruments will be brought to the Moon as part of the IM-1 mission. They will be carried aboard the Nova-C ‘Odysseus’ lander, which will set down in an impact crater – Malapert A – at the Moon’s south pole.

Among the instruments on board are:

  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1), a shoebox sized hardware experiment that combines navigation and communication systems to allow a vehicle to find its one way to a landing site. It transmits several radio signals to help guide spacecraft to landing sites on the surface.
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS), a 4-camera system that will capture Nova-C’s descent to the Lunar surface, in particular the dust plume that will be created as the lander touches down on the Moon.
  • Radio-wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the photo Electron Sheath (ROLSES), is a low-frequency radio receiver that can measure the density of the electron layer that exists about 2m above the Moon’s surface. These electrons emerge from the lunar regolith (Moon soil) as it’s hit by ultraviolet light from the Sun.
  • Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL)​, is a landing sensor, which will use light pulses to measure Nova-C’s distance to the lunar surface as it descends.
  • Radio Frequency Mass Gauge (RFMG), a set of antennae mounted inside the spacecraft’s liquid oxygen and methane fuel tanks that will monitor propellant levels throughout the mission.
  • Laser Retroreflector (LRA), tested on the recent Chandrayaan-3 mission, this disc can be ‘pinged’ by a laser beam to determine the distance and position of a vehicle on the lunar surface.
Retroreflector array nasa
The 5cm wide retroreflector mounted to Odysseus. Credit: NASA Goddard.

IM-1 readies for launch

The IM-1 mission will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Odysseus was this week mounted to the rocket’s payload carrier as it prepares to launch from the Kennedy Space Centre.

In light of the challenges that hampered Astrobotic’s Peregrine as well post-landing issues from Japan’s SLIM mission in January, Intuitive Machines’ vice president of lunar access, Trent Martin, said his company had reviewed its systems ahead of launch.

“We look at what the failures were that they’ve had, we look at our systems along the way to ensure we’ve at least thought about those … about what the failure was to ensure that we, hopefully, won’t suffer the same failures that they did,” Martin said in a pre-launch briefing.

“A million things have to go right and if one thing goes wrong you can still have a failure.

“I can’t say that we’ve solved every problem, but we certainly have looked at, as much as we can, to the lessons that we’ve learned over the last 4-5 years and the various missions that have attempted to land on the Moon.”

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