Australia’s famous telescope to play vital role in historic Moon mission

Texas aerospace company Intuitive Machines has made history this morning, landing its ‘Odysseus’ Nova-C spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. 

It marks the first time in 52 years that a US-flagged lander has set down on the lunar surface and the first time that a private company – not a national space agency – has done so.  

Despite a handful of delays pushing the landing back by around an hour and issues establishing communications with the vehicle, Odysseus’s was confirmed to have landed at 6.23pm US ET/10.23am AEDT. 

Speaking after the landing NASA Administrator Bill Nelson highlighted the potential for future private-public space voyages, saying the landing marked “a giant leap forward for all of humanity”. 

“Today for the first time in the history of humanity, a commercial company – an American company – launched and land [sic] the voyage up there,” Nelson said. “Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships.” 

Intuitive Machines is one of a dozen companies appointed to deliver NASA scientific equipment to the Moon as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services. Those instruments will perform a series of experiments and tests at Malapert A – a crater near the lunar south pole, in preparation for the next batch of NASA’s Artemis missions. 

As part of the mission, it developed its own global data network, which has a vital Australian component in the form of the CSIRO’s ‘Murriyang’ Parkes radio telescope. 

Murriyang is the most sensitive antenna in the IM data network. Having tracked Odysseus since it left Earth, it will resume receiving data from the craft at 9.30pm AEDT on Friday night.  

While Parkes has been a core component of US space travel since it received the first data from the first Moon landing in 1969, decades of upgrades now position the facility as one of the most important antennas on the planet. 

A photo of a large telescope during a sunset, with the moon high in the sky
The photo of the Parkes Radio Telescope, taken in 1969, shows the telescope as it was around the time of the first manned Moon landing. Credit: CSIRO

“The telescope here is well over 10,000 times more sensitive now than it was during the Apollo missions,” Dr Jane Kaczmarek, the CSIRO’s lead astrophysicist for the Odysseus mission, tells Cosmos. 

Murriyang is typically used to receive signals billions of times dimmer than what Odysseus will be transmitting, so she’s looking forward to registering a “booming” signal in country New South Wales. 

“The receiver here is cryogenically cooled to 22 Kelvin, so -250°C, and that type of system temperature is what makes us so sensitive to be able to pick on these signals and really help Intuitive Machines. 

“Murriyang is going to be able to step into this role of a very, very sensitive telescope in order to see what it is actually coming from the lunar lander. And we’ll be able to help Intuitive Machines really figure out what’s going on, if they haven’t already.” 

Please login to favourite this article.