Intuitive Machines faces early end to moon mission after lander tips over

Intuitive Machines’ first moon mission will come to a premature end due to the spacecraft landing on its side, which altered how the solar panels are positioned in relation to the sun, the company said in an update Tuesday morning.

Flight controllers were still working to determine the battery’s remaining life, which could be between 10-20 hours. The spacecraft, which landed on the moon five days ago, was expected to operate for 7-10 days.

Intuitive Machines made history when it landed its spacecraft, called Odysseus, near the lunar south pole last week. The lander is the first American hardware to touch the lunar surface since NASA’s final crewed Apollo mission in 1972. It’s also the first privately built and operated spacecraft to land on the moon — ever – and the closest a lander has ever come to the lunar south pole.

But the momentous success was somewhat dashed when company officials revealed in a televised press briefing the following day that the spacecraft had actually tipped over at some point during landing. Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus suggested that Odysseus did not descend straight down, but at a lateral angle. It also came down a little too quickly, which could’ve caused one of the feet to catch on a rock or crevice and causing the tip, he speculated.

The spacecraft likely came to a rest slightly elevated on a rock, based on the amount of power that was being generated by the solar arrays, he added. Images captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite that’s been orbiting the moon and collecting data on its surface for over a decade, located Odysseus on the surface and confirmed it landed within just 1.5 kilometers of its intended site near the lunar south pole.

Odysseus is continuing to send science data and imagery related to the onboard payloads, but the company did not specify whether the data rates have been limited due to the lander’s position. While none of the science payloads are located on the panel facing the moon’s surface, two of the spacecraft’s antennae are now pointing at the ground.

It is still unclear if this is affecting any data-gathering, but Altemus said the loss of the antennae was a “limiter.”

“Those antennas are unusable for transmission back to Earth,” he said last Friday. “So that really is a limiter. Our ability to communicate and get the right data down so that we get everything we need for the mission I think is the most compromised from [it] being on its side.”

Intuitive Machines’ historic landing is due in no small part to extremely quick thinking on the part of flight controllers, who had to improvise a navigation solution after they learned the spacecraft’s onboard laser range finders — which collect essential landing data, like altitude and horizontal velocity — were not working. Remarkably, they turned instead to one of the payloads on the lander, a doppler lidar technology demonstrator from NASA, to help land the vehicle on the surface.

Company officials later revealed that the laser range finders stopped working due to human error and trade-offs made to save time and money, rather than any technical issues. Engineers chose not to test fire the laser system on the ground due to cost and scheduling, Intuitive Machines’ head of navigation systems, Mike Hansen, told Reuters yesterday. Engineers also failed to toggle a physical safety switch on the system prior to launch.

Intuitive Machines and NASA leadership will host a second televised news conference tomorrow to discuss updates to the mission.

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