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A new lunar lander is on its way to the moon

Here's everything you need to know about IM-1

The Intuitive Machines lunar lander is on its way to the moon!

If it succeeds in its landing, currently scheduled for February 22 at 5:49 PM ET, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will be the first private spacecraft to ever soft land on the moon (currently only five countries have ever done it — the U.S., the former Soviet Union, China, India, and Japan). It will also be the first U.S. spacecraft to soft land on the moon since the Apollo program, specifically Apollo 17’s touchdown in 1972.

Apollo 17 on the moon, 1972, Credit: Gene Cernan/NASA

Let’s dive into everything you need to know about this uncrewed spacecraft and this mission.

Meet Odie

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander for this mission is called Odysseus, nicknamed Odie. The spacecraft successfully launched from Launch Complex 39A from Kennedy Space Center, FL on February 15 at 1:05 am ET.

SpaceX confirmed successful deployment of Odie after launch.

Credit: SpaceX

The lander is currently on schedule and the spacecraft is healthy. The team needs to perform a few maneuvers to position Odie for lunar orbit insertion, and on February 16, they successfully fired the liquid methane and liquid oxygen engine (better known as methalox). That’s the first time a methalox engine has ever been successfully fired in space (more on why that’s a big deal later.)

First IM-1 pictures from space, credit: Intuitive Machines

They also performing a main engine burn, as well as a throttling maneuver which is something they’ll need to do to land on the moon. That means they’ve successfully commissioned Odie’s engine.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

IM-1 as part of NASA’s CLPS program

The IM-1 mission is part of NASA’s CLPS, or Commercial Lunar Payload Services, program. This is aimed at NASA paying private companies to deliver payloads to the moon’s surface as part of the Artemis programs, which aims to return humans to the moon’s surface sometime this decade.

Credit: Swapna Krishna

A big part of the Artemis program is creating a sustainable and long-term human presence on and in orbit of the moon, and thanks to experience with the ISS, NASA has learned that incentivizing private companies to develop the tech to make this happen is better than doing it in house (just look at the absolute boondoggle that is SLS, NASA’s moon rocket that will cost around $4.1 billion per launch).

There’s already been one lunar lander launched as part of the CLPS program, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander.

Credit: Astrobotic/NASA

Unfortunately that mission ended in failure — for more information on that mission, check out my video.

A propellant leak meant that the spacecraft didn’t even make it to lunar orbit, much less attempt a landing, and the spacecraft ended up burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Landing on the moon is NOT easy, so it’s by no means inevitable that Intuitive Machines will succeed here, but it’s a good sign that the engine is working properly and the spacecraft is in good shape so far.

How landing on the moon will work (in theory at least)

The IM-1 landing is scheduled currently for February 22 at 16:49 PM CST (that’s 5:49 PM ET), and honestly if they soft land successfully, that’s a win. That’s a successful mission.

Intuitive Machines did provide a detailed rundown of their mission success criteria, which includes 16 different milestones they have to achieve.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

At the time I’m writing this, they haven’t yet started Trajectory Correction Maneuvers 1, 2, and 3.

What’s going to happen is that the spacecraft will perform three burns to correct its trajectory. The expectation is that each burn will get Odie closer to where it needs to be, and therefore each subsequent burn will be smaller than the one before it. The team will then perform the largest maneuver, which will put the spacecraft into low lunar orbit around the moon.

Numbers 9 through 16 on the list will happen pretty quickly. Number 9, Descent Orbit Insertion, will happen on the far side of the moon and the lander will drop from about 100 km above the surface to 10 km. It will then coast for about an hour before powered descent.

It’s worth nothing that after Descent Orbit Insertion, the spacecraft will be fully autonomous and will run through steps 10 through 16 without any further input from mission control. If you’ve ever watched the livestream of one of these lunar lander missions, you know that this is where everyone, including those working the mission, are biting their nails. The spacecraft is designed to land at a velocity of one meter per second, and it’ll take about 15 seconds after the vehicle touches down for confirmation — assuming everything goes well.

I have to shout out Intuitive Machines’ great press kit for all this information by the way. Some companies aren’t good about providing information, but theirs is awesome.

The landing site: Malapert A crater

Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute Regional Planetary Image Facility.

Odie’s landing site is the Malapert A crater about 300 km away from the lunar south pole. This is very close to one of the proposed landing sites for Artemis III, Malapert Massif.

Credit: NASA

It’s important to note that because the moon is shrinking (yes, the moon is in fact shrinking), the lunar south pole is subject to some geological instability, and it could affect the Artemis missions.

Odysseus’s science experiments

If IM-1 achieves landing on February 22, that will mean they have a week of lunar day to get some stuff done.

A day on the moon lasts about two weeks, and lunar night is about two weeks long as well (remember, one rotation of the moon is 28 Earth days long). This spacecraft isn’t designed to survive the harsh lunar nights, which can get as cold as -200 degrees F.

There are six different NASA experiments aboard the lander, so there’s a lot of science to do in that week. They are:

  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator which focuses on autonomous navigation for future landers

  • Laser Retroreflector Array which is a permanent location marker on the moon that allows precise measurement of the distance of a spacecraft in orbit or on the surface to this array

  • Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing which is a LIDAR based system that will measure altitude, direction, and speed during descent and landing

  • Radio Frequency Mass Gauge a new way to measure fuel in low gravity

  • Radio-wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the Photoelectron Sheath which will use radio frequencies to determine how human activity interferes with conducting science on the moon

  • and Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies which are four cameras that will observe how the moon’s surface is affected by descent and landing

It’s a lot of science to do in a week, and what both Intuitive Machines and NASA learn from this will help us with future moon missions.

Why methalox engines are a big deal

Previously I referred to Odysseus’s engine as the first liquid methane and liquid oxygen (or methalox) engine successfully fired in space. That’s a big deal. Here’s why:

Methalox has been the fuel the space industry has been moving towards for a very long time.

Apollo 11 launch, credit NASA

The Saturn V rocket, which took Apollo astronauts to the moon, used kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellant in its first stage. That’s also what the current workhorse rocket of the space industry, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket uses. There are a lot of advantages to using RP-1 (which is rocket grade kerosene) and LOX. It’s inexpensive and performs well.

Credit: SpaceX

But SpaceX’s interplanetary spacecraft and rocket, Starship, will use liquid methane and liquid oxygen as propellant, and there are a few reasons for this.

It’s more efficient, which is very important for rockets. When you’re launching something from the ground, you’re basically dragging it upwards into space. That means you’re looking to shed weight wherever you can, and fuel is the heaviest thing you’re taking with you. This is why rockets often have stages — the first stage is just to get you off the ground, and when you burn off all the fuel in it, it’s jettisoned so you don’t have to continue dragging that dead weight up to orbit and beyond.

It’s also more environmentally friendly than burning kerosene, it’s cheaper, and it’s more sustainable. If the idea is to get to the moon or Mars, then we’ll need to be able to produce fuel locally. Methalox makes that possible.

But there is also a downside:

Usually, lunar landers use more stable propellants, and the spacecraft is fueled before it’s loaded onto the rocket. But because methalox requires cryo temperatures, that means it has to be loaded as close to launch as possible to prevent the fuel from boiling off. SpaceX actually had to modify its Falcon 9 rocket to allow the lander to be fueled at the same time as the rocket, about 2 hours before launch. It’s a small thing, but it’s yet another innovation to this whole process that I find really cool.

Credit: SpaceX

Okay, so that’s basically everything you need to know about the Intuitive Machines IM-1 lunar landing attempt coming up later this week. I’m sure there will be some sort of control room livestream from Nova Control in Houston, TX. Successful or not, this is a huge deal and I’m looking forward to seeing what the team accomplishes.