Goodbye Odysseus – The First Commercial Lunar Lander on the Moon

  • 28 Mar 2024

On 22nd February 2024, an American spacecraft named Odysseus, has successfully landed on the Moon, marking a significant moment in space exploration. The IM-1 Mission marks the first U.S. lunar landing in over 50 years since Apollo 17, and is the first commercial lunar landing to transmit essential scientific data of each NASA payload from the lunar surface.

The robotic lunar lander, developed by Houston-based company Intuitive Machines, was launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on February 15. After traveling over 1,000,000 km, Odysseus continues to be in excellent health since its launch and enters into lunar orbit on February 21. The next day, Odysseus successfully landed on the Moon’s south pole region, despite breaking a leg upon landing.

Due to the suboptimal landing position, its solar panels were not in the most optimum angle to collect sunlight and generate power. Nonetheless, Odysseus still managed to transmit several images during its short time on the moon. A retrieved image shows Odysseus’ landing strut in action and the active liquid methane and oxygen engine, contributing to stability. Intuitive Machines suggests that these observations in the image allowed Odysseus to softly touch down on the lunar surface, preserving the capability to return scientific data.

Odysseus’ landing strut during landing on February 22nd. Photo: Intuitive Machines.

As time passes, Odysseus’s power will continue to deplete, and is estimated to shutdown after a week as it transitions into the shadows, moving away from the sun. However, with the recent unexpected sudden awakening of the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) after a month since its landing, it sparks hope for Odysseus to resume communications again in the coming months.

SLIM, a lunar lander mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), successfully landed on the moon on 20 January 2024. This lunar landing demonstrates the spacecraft’s new precision-landing technology and marks a significant milestone for Japan’s space travel missions. Moreover, the technology has the potential to enhance future landings by enabling spacecraft to touch down in small spaces among rocky or uneven landscapes, eliminating the need to locate large open areas.

During its descend, SLIM experience a last-minute engine failure in one of its two engines, causing it to be tipped over sideways upon landing. As power generation from the solar cells was not possible due to the non-ideal position, the spacecraft was shutdown by a command on the ground a few hours shortly after landing. Hence, it’s revival after a month was a pleasant surprise to all as it was originally not expected to be able to survive the harsh lunar environment for so long.

Image of the lunar surface captured by the SLIM onboard navigation camera after landing. (Note: the image is rotated to align with the direction of gravity) Photo: JAXA.

Hence, one continues to remain hopeful as flight controllers of the Odysseus start to listen for its wake-up signal on 20 March, when the sufficient sunlight projected could possibly charge the lander’s power system and activate its radio again.

Sadly, as of 23rd March 2024, flight controllers have announced that the Odysseus power system will not be able to make another communication attempt, confirming that the Odysseus has permanently faded, leaving behind a lasting legacy as the first commercial lunar lander ever to land on the Moon.

Odysseus’ position on the lunar surface. Photo: Intuitive Machines
Odysseus captured this image approximately 35 seconds after pitching over during its approach to the landing site. Photo: Intuitive Machines

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