Take two: Intuitive Machines to have its crack at Moon history

An American company is on the brink of making Moon history – again.

Just weeks after Pennsylvania-based space company Astrobotic confirmed its ill-fated Moon mission would finish at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, a Texas rival will start its attempt at making lunar history tonight.

Intuitive Machines is set to launch its IM-1 mission on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida from the early hours of Thursday morning local time.

Illustration of a gold and white lunar lander on the moon's surface
Illustration of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander. Credit: NASA

Sending its Nova-C lunar lander to the Moon’s south pole, a successful landing on February 22 would make Intuitive Machines the first private company to place a vehicle on the surface.

Among the Nova-C lander’s payload will be 6 NASA instruments. The IM-1 mission forms part of NASA’s venture into public-private space partnerships through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and will carry 6 of the space agency’s instruments to Malapert A, a crater located around 300km east of the south pole.

Those instruments form part of testing and preparation for the Artemis program, which aims to put humans back on the Moon by the end of this decade.

Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic are both partners in the CLPS initiative, as well as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin and 9 other US companies.

IM-1’s Aussie connection

Unlike most space missions that use NASA’s global Deep Space Network of monitoring satellites, which includes the CSIRO-operated space communication complex in Canberra, Intuitive Machines will use its own Lunar Data Network (LDN) to communicate with IM-1.

As part of that, Intuitive Machines has an agreement with the CSIRO to use its Murriyang radio telescope in Parkes, located 4.5 hours northwest of Sydney.

A coloured map of the moon's south pole
Location of Malapert A (top-centre) in relation to the Moon’s south pole. Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute Regional Planetary Image Facility.

In a case of history repeating itself, Parkes will provide downlink services for the mission that the US hopes will mark its return to the Moon half a century after the end of the Apollo missions, albeit through a private company.

Parkes was critical to NASA when it acted as the main receiving station for the Apollo 11 mission that delivered humans to the lunar surface in 1969.

It will also be involved in receiving communications from the LN-1 navigation instrument which is part of the lander’s NASA payload.

IM-1’s launch window commences at 1.05am US EST/5:05pm AEDT on Thursday 15 February.

Csiro parkes radio telescope murriyang credit alex cherney
The CSIRO Murriyang Radio Telescope in Parkes, NSW. Credit: Alex Cherney

Update: This story previously noted the original launch was due from Wednesday 14 February. It has since been updated to Thursday 15 February following a refuelling delay for the IM-1 spacecraft.

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