Odysseus Moon Lander Heads Into a Cold Lunar Slumber

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Soon it will be time to say, “Good night, moon lander.”

Last week, Odysseus, a privately built robotic lunar lander, became the first American spacecraft to set down on the moon in more than 50 years, and the first nongovernmental effort ever to accomplish that feat.

But like the Homeric Greek hero it was named after, the lander has not had an easy journey with a neat, happy ending. The spacecraft encountered a series of near-calamitous challenges, almost lost its way, then landed crookedly.

During a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based company that built Odysseus, said the spacecraft continued to operate, but that it would be put into a planned shutdown within a few hours.

The few hours stretched into almost another day. On Thursday morning, Intuitive Machines said in a statement the spacecraft was “still kicking.”

The spacecraft, nicknamed Odie, is to begin winding down operations at noon Eastern time on Thursday, the company said. “Flight controllers intend to downlink additional data and command Odie into a configuration that he may phone home if and when he wakes up when the sun rises again.”

Despite everything that did not work quite right, Steve Altemus, the chief executive of Intuitive Machines, still called the mission “an unqualified success.”

Odysseus achieved its main objective, Mr. Altemus said, which was “to touch down softly on the surface of the moon, softly and safely, and return scientific data to our customers.”

Originally, the mission was to last nine or 10 days, until night fell on the solar-powered spacecraft. But with Odysseus tilted at an angle, its solar panels were not in the ideal orientation to collect sunlight and generate power.

The company suggested earlier this week that dwindling power might end lander operations on Tuesday. That pronouncement was premature, and the timeline shifted several times after that.

Engineers toiled over the weekend trying to speed up the communications with Odysseus and retrieve data.

On Wednesday, the story of how Odysseus got to the ground without crashing into pieces became even more incredible.

Intuitive Machines had already disclosed that the laser instrument on Odysseus for measuring its altitude during descent was not working. Safety mechanisms to prevent the lasers from firing accidentally on Earth had never been removed.

In the hours before landing, engineers hurriedly rewrote guidance software on Odysseus to use altitude readings from a more advanced but still experimental laser device that NASA was testing on this flight.

But the programmers overlooked one spot in the software that needed to be updated, and the spacecraft’s computer ignored the altitude data. Thus, during the landing descent, Odysseus did not know precisely how high above the moon’s surface it was. However, it was able to make guesses of its altitude based on its horizontal speed calculated from camera images and measurements of accelerations in the spacecraft’s velocity.

“It’s the first time anybody’s flown this algorithm, and it exceeded expectations, because we lived to tell about it,” Mr. Altemus said.

Last Thursday, it was not immediately evident that Odysseus had arrived in working order.

For several anxious minutes after the time of landing passed, flight controllers at Intuitive Machines waited for a radio signal from the lander to confirm that it had reached its destination in the moon’s south pole region. When the signal was detected, it was faint, indicating that the spacecraft’s antennas were pointing away from Earth.

The next day, Intuitive Machines officials disclosed that Odysseus had toppled over after hitting the ground harder than planned. Instead of making a perfectly vertical landing, Odysseus had still been moving sideways as it touched down.

Mr. Altemus showed a photograph taken at the moment of landing.

“This is a picture of Odie on the surface of the moon, touching down with its engine firing,” he said. “You see here, the landing gear, pieces broken off there on the left of the image.”

Intuitive Machines was never able to fully overcome the communications slowdown caused by the misdirected antennas, and NASA, which paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to take six instruments to the surface of the moon, did not gather as much scientific data as it had hoped. But the mission was not a total loss.

Tim Crain, the chief technology officer at Intuitive Machines, said on Wednesday that Odysseus had sent back 350 megabytes of science and engineering data.

Dr. Crain also described other glitches suffered by Odysseus, including a startracker that initially failed to track stars and an engine that appeared to be unbalanced, as well as arriving at the moon in the wrong orbit. Each time, Intuitive Machines engineers found workarounds.

For NASA, the partial success provided some validation for its strategy of relying on entrepreneurial companies to deliver its instruments, rather than building and operating the spacecraft itself.

“We now have that evidence” that such missions can work, said Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s science mission directorate.

The hope is that such companies will be able to launch more quickly at a fraction of the cost of traditional NASA-run missions, and that they could spur businesses to expand into cislunar space — the region extending from Earth out to the orbit of the moon.

“We’ve fundamentally changed the economics of landing on the moon,” Mr. Altemus said, “and we’ve kicked open the door for a robust, thriving cislunar economy in the future.”

Space agency officials like Dr. Kearns have said they expected some of these low-cost missions would fail, especially the early attempts.

Odysseus might wake up in a few weeks when the sun rises again. Dr. Crain said it was likely the solar panels would still be able to generate power, but the rest of Odysseus may not make it through the two weeks of lunar night when temperatures drop to about minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The number-one limiter we face is the batteries,” Dr. Crain said. “That chemistry does not respond well to deep cold.”

The batteries, computer and radios on Odysseus were not tested to determine if they would still work after a long chill.

But they might. A Japanese lunar lander, also solar-powered, revived over the weekend after it made it through lunar night.

Perhaps an even greater challenge for Intuitive Machines might be convincing Wall Street.

Intuitive Machines went public last year through a merger with a shell company. The price of its shares, which trade under the symbol LUNR, shot up to about $40 one year ago, but fell a month later and have yet to fully rebound. The stock price jumped this month, to more than $10, as Odysseus headed to the moon, but this week, it fell again, to under $6, down more than 30 percent since the landing.

The company’s stock price is volatile because company insiders are barred from trading its stock for a certain length of time after the company goes public. That leaves the value of shares more vulnerable to knee-jerk reactions based on headlines, said Andres Sheppard, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald. Retail investors appeared to have been spooked after it was announced that the spacecraft landed sideways, dragging down the stock price about 34 percent on Monday, the first trading day after the announcement.

“We strongly disagree with that, but obviously our voice is not the loudest at the moment,” Mr. Sheppard said. His firm raised its forecast for Intuitive Machines after the landing.

That the spacecraft landed at all is a good sign for the company, Mr. Sheppard said. One of its two major revenue streams is contracts to deliver cargo to the moon for NASA and private clients. It can make about $130 million per mission, and the landing — regardless of the orientation of the spacecraft — paves the way for more missions in the future.

“It’s transformational for the business,” said Austin Moeller, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity. “It was a very important moment for the company to be able to demonstrate its technical acumen.”

At the news conference, Mr. Altemus was also bullish.

“I’m emboldened for the future of the U.S. economy.” Mr. Altemus said. “I’m emboldened for the future of sustained human presence on the moon, and I’m emboldened for the future of Intuitive Machines.”

J. Edward Moreno contributed reporting.



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