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The Odysseus Moonlander Goes Dark

A crooked landing leaves scientists wondering if the lunar module will ever reawaken.
Photos+accessed+from+Official+Intuitive+Machines+Photos%3A+intuitivemachines.com%2Fgallery
Photos accessed from Official Intuitive Machines Photos: intuitivemachines.com/gallery

After a re-plotted orbit and a panicked, experimental landing procedure, Odysseus finally touched down, making it the first commercial spacecraft ever to land on the moon. Then, it fell over. 

The Odysseus lunar lander was built by Intuitive Machines, a relatively new company based out of Houston, Texas. The lander’s mission was to assess and document the moon’s south pole. In partnership with NASA and SpaceX, Odysseus launched from the Kennedy Space Center on February 15, inside the Falcon 9 rocket. 

“The United States hadn’t sent anything to the moon since 1972,” said Dr. Jason Gilbert, Associate Research Scientist at the University of Michigan Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. “So this was a big deal.” 

After a 250,000-mile voyage, Odysseus was in position and ready to begin its descent to the lunar surface. That’s when the control team discovered a potentially devastating issue. 

“Somehow, somebody just forgot to install a little pin in the wire harness for their laser altimeter,” Dr. Gilbert said. 

The laser altimeter was the lander’s primary navigation device. Without it, the craft had no hope of landing safely. 

What the operators needed now was time. Odysseus had just enough fuel to launch into an additional orbit as teams from Intuitive Machines and NASA figured out what to do. 

In addition to helping fund the project with a gift of $118 million, NASA also fitted the lander with a tech demonstration: an experimental laser navigation system. The instrument was only on board as a proof-of-concept and was never meant to be used in the actual landing sequence — but it saved the mission. Controllers quickly programmed a patch that would allow them to use NASA’s laser system to guide Odysseus to a safe landing. 

Odysseus descends to the lunar surface.

“And it worked. In just a couple hours they got the patch in place,” Dr. Gilbert said, “And then [the spacecraft] went into its landing protocol.” 

In the final moments of the landing procedure, Odysseus went completely autonomous. It was expected that the craft would lose communication with the control team for a minute or two while it piloted itself to the ground. But in reality, the communication lapse was much longer. 

“There was like five minutes of just searching the sky for signals,” Dr. Gilbert said, “They knew that if they didn’t find it, their backup was twelve hours later.”

After a nail-biting search, they finally found a weak signal from Odysseus, reporting that it had landed. Only later did they realize that there had been a problem with the touchdown. NASA’s experimental laser system had misjudged the craft’s distance to the surface. 

“It hit about three times faster than they wanted [it] to,” Dr. Gilbert said.

The impact was great enough to break off one of the lander’s six legs and cause it to topple over onto its side. Unfortunately, this rendered many of Odysseus’ scientific instruments unusable, including its main antenna and many of its solar panels. Still, the craft persevered and carried out many of its scientific duties for about six days before running out of power on Wednesday, February 28.

Odysseus is now enduring a lunar night: a period in which the lander will not see the sun for about two weeks.

“And that was all they could do,” Dr. Gilbert said, “So we’re waiting to see if, when daytime comes, it’ll get enough juice to talk to us again.”

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About the Contributor
Malcolm London, Journalist
Malcolm is an aspiring journalist with a passion for the greater good. By day, he writes articles and performs for the Community Ensemble Theatre. By night, he fights crime and commits admirable acts of heroism. With the shadows as his only ally, Malcolm has single-handedly turned the crime-riddled streets of Ann Arbor into a joyful utopia. This is his first year on staff.

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