The first U.S. lunar lander since 1972 touches down on the moon

The lander, dubbed Odysseus, is tipped on its side but appears otherwise healthy

Illustration of a spacecraft on the moon's surface with Earthrise in the background.

The Odysseus moon lander (illustrated) delivered six NASA payloads to the lunar surface in addition to a few from private companies and groups. Data suggest the spacecraft is tipped on its side but functioning, the mission team announced February 23.

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After a nail-biting descent, the United States took one small step back to the surface of the moon.

A spindly robotic lander named Odysseus — designed and built by a private U.S. company — touched down near the moon’s south pole at about 6:23 p.m. Eastern time. The probe, which is carrying six NASA payloads plus a few other odds and ends, is the first U.S. vehicle to perform a controlled descent to the lunar soil since Apollo 17 landed in 1972.

“I know this was a nail-biter but we are on the surface and we are transmitting and welcome to the moon,” Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said during a live NASA broadcast of the touchdown. “Houston, Odysseus has found its new home.”

Data collected after the touchdown suggests the lander ended up tipped on its side as it sat on the lunar surface with its solar arrays deployed and its battery charged to 100 percent, Altemus said during a NASA news conference February 23. The team believes the spacecraft might have caught some of its landing gear on the ground or possibly in a crevice, tipping the lander gently over, where it came to rest on a rock.

Houston-based private company Intuitive Machines is overseeing the mission, which launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 15. Odysseus’ destination was a flat region near the Malapert A crater, about 300 kilometers from the moon’s south pole. The spot is near one of several potential landing sites for future NASA astronauts.

Engineers had to deal with several unexpected problems during the landing attempt, most prominently the fact that the spacecraft’s laser range finder, part of its autonomous landing system, stopped functioning. Mission planners decided to stay in orbit for an extra two hours and then were able to use two backup lasers that were part of a NASA payload to complete the descent. 

“What we can confirm without a doubt is that our equipment is on the moon and we are transmitting,” mission director Tim Crain, chief technology officer of Intuitive Machines said shortly after touchdown. Communication with the spacecraft was patchy, and it was unclear immediately what shape it was in.

Odysseus, which stands about 4 meters tall and 1.5 meters wide, is hauling a half dozen NASA instruments designed to demonstrate equipment for future landings and better understand the environment near the south pole in service of planned astronaut missions. The payloads will test precision landing technologies, try out a new way of knowing how much lander fuel is left, investigate the radio environment near the moon’s surface, and plop a set of retroreflectors on the ground that will serve as a permanent location marker.

Though NASA is the company’s main customer, the space agency’s instruments aren’t the only passengers. Payloads from several private companies and groups are along for the ride as well. They include a camera designed by students and faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. The camera was to be jettisoned from the lander about 30 meters above the surface to capture the first images of a lunar touchdown from outside the incoming spacecraft. And Odysseus is delivering the first art installation on the moon: A cube of 125 miniature sculptures that commemorate human curiosity.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled,” says Steve Durst, director of the International Lunar Observatory, a private company based in Kamuela, Hawaii, that sent a small telescope as one of the payloads on Odysseus. The telescope, named ILO-X, expects to take scientific images of the Milky Way from the lunar surface that will be used by researchers to study our galaxy. 

The sculptural art installation was on a panel on the lander that is facing toward the ground. But most of the payloads are on the sides of the lander that are facing up, the team said, and the instruments appear to be operational and able to send information back to Earth. Because of the difficulties in landing, though, the Embry-Riddle–built camera wasn’t deployed during the descent as planned. Engineers are still hopeful that they’ll be able to fire it away from the spacecraft and take images at a later date.

The Intuitive Machines venture is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, wherein the agency hires companies to scout the moon in support of the Artemis lunar program (SN: 11/16/22). Under Artemis, NASA aims to reestablish a human presence on the moon, with the first crewed landing no earlier than late 2026.

It’s been more than 50 years since astronaut Eugene Cernan left the last U.S. footprints on the moon. In recent years, a string of robotic landing attempts have been made by private companies and countries alike, though most failed (SN: 8/23/23). The landing by Odysseus today has moved the United States closer to its next giant leap in space exploration.

“Today, for the first time in more than a half century, the U.S. has returned to the moon,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson during the NASA broadcast. “Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships. Congratulations to everyone involved in this great and daring quest.”

Intuitive Machines expects that the lander will remain operational for another nine to 10 days before the region that it’s in passes into the cold lunar night, which lasts two weeks. Odysseus is solar-powered and won’t be able to charge its batteries enough to keep the spacecraft warm for that long. Most of the vehicle’s electronics will have a hard time with the plunging temperatures and aren’t expected to survive, though engineers will check once Odysseus is back in daylight.

“You’re gonna bring a tear to my eye,” Crain said when asked about the prospect of Odysseus’ demise during the Feb. 23 NASA briefing. But he was also jubilant when reflecting about his team’s accomplishments. 

“To look at the moon every night now and know that we have new hardware there that we had a hand in building, it really was a magical, magical day,” he said.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

About Adam Mann

Adam Mann is a freelance space and physics reporter. He has a degree in astrophysics from University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in science writing from UC Santa Cruz.

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