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  • The first photos from the Intuitive Machines moon mission are here!

The first photos from the Intuitive Machines moon mission are here!

...But they might look different than you expected.

We have the first moon pictures from Intuitive Machines’ lander Odysseus.

Let’s take a look, and then I’m going to break down the question of why the images are of the quality they are, and why it’s taken four days to get them.

Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

First, let’s start with photo from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). This is a spacecraft in orbit of the moon that passed over the landing site on February 24 at an altitude of 56 miles or 90 kilometers. This image is 3,192 feet (973 meters) across.

Thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s data, Intuitive Machines was able to pinpoint Odysseus’s landing site on the moon: It’s within a 1-km wide crater and it landed on terrain sloped at 12 degrees. This is a before and after image put together by NASA. According to Intuitive Machines, the lander touched down (and then toppled over) within 1.5 km of its intended landing site. 

Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Now here are the images from the lander itself. This first one was taken during approach to the landing site.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

This second photo was during the vertical descent phase. 

Credit: Intuitive Machines

Ok, let’s talk a little bit about the quality of these photos because I know there are a lot of questions here. They’re both from a fisheye lens, but the lander does have better cameras. There’s EagleCam, which I’ll get to in a minute, and there’s also cameras from the International Lunar Observatory designed to take some of the first photos of the center of our galaxy from the moon. There’s also a Canadensys dual-camera imaging system that was supposed to take 360-degree images during descent and landing. In other words, if everything worked correctly (and isn’t a mess because the lander fell over), there should be a lot more to see. So why haven’t we yet?

This is just my speculation, but I think they’re definitely still having communications issues. They likely have the kinks worked out, but it seems like data download is taking a very long time. (To be clear, I don’t think it took three days to download two photos, my guess is they timed the press conference Friday with the market close to tell us the lander wasn’t upright and released these images this morning when the markets opened, I definitely think that was strategic.)

But I do think data download is taking a lot longer than they expected for a few reasons. First, if I hadn’t made it clear yet, Odysseus is on its side (if somehow you aren’t aware, they think one of the lander’s six legs may have gotten caught during descent and so the lander tipped over.) 

I pulled Intuitive Machines’ FCC filing to check out the communications equipment. The lander has four regular antennas and one high-gain antenna. At the press conference on Friday, Intuitive Machines said that some of the lander’s antenna were pointed at the surface of the moon, which makes those unusable.

Credit: Intuitive Machines FCC filing

According to the information we have, one side is pointed at the ground, which means weaker antennas are the ones pointed at Earth (which is straight up in this image that I made badly). The most powerful antenna, the high-gain antenna, is pointing not at Earth (it’s pointing right in the image), which is making all of this so much more complicated.

Credit: Intuitive Machines for the lander, NASA for the moon

Right now, Intuitive Machines is using the most powerful dishes they have in their private communications network to communicate with the spacecraft — according to their FCC filing, that would be the dishes in the UK, Australia, and India.

But even then I’m just not sure that’s enough bandwidth given the orientation of the antennas. Previously I talked about how using a private network, versus the tried and true (and extremely powerful) Deep Space Network operated by NASA-JPL, might have put communications for this mission at a disadvantage.

I do think part of the lack of updates has to do with the tight timeframe. On Friday, Mission Director Tim Crain said that best case scenario, the lander had nine to 10 days of daylight. But unfortunately, we’re not dealing with the best case scenario. We learned today that the solar panels will likely stop being exposed to light tomorrow, on Tuesday. Mission Control doesn’t expect to be able to communicate with the lander after tomorrow morning. That means they’re spending all the time they have downloading data before the lander goes dark.

Basically I think they grabbed whatever they could to release today, but we’ll get better quality photos later this week — if Intuitive Machines can pull them off the lander in time. EagleCam was a small camera that was supposed to deploy during landing. That didn’t happen because of the safety switch issues with their laser range finders that forced the company to switch to NASA’s onboard LIDAR right before descent and landing. The fixes they had to make basically shut off EagleCam and they didn’t have time to go back in and fix it.

However, there were plans to deploy it sometime this weekend. It would have fallen about 30 meters away from the spacecraft and taken pictures, so hopefully that worked. The Intuitive Machines team did say they didn’t have commanding ability of EagleCam yet as of Friday late afternoon, which contributes to my suspicion they’re having real communications issues. 

So, that’s the status of the IM-1 mission as of Monday afternoon. There isn’t much time left, so I think once communications are lost sometime tomorrow morning, we’ll start getting more images and data later this week. 

Intuitive Machines is contracted for three lunar landings as part of NASA’s CLPS program (which is NASA’s initiative to partner with private companies to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon).

That means that Intuitive Machines’ priority here is to download as much descent and landing data they can for the next two missions, both of which are also scheduled for 2024, because I think we can all agree that we don’t want the next one to tip over.

Remember that this mission is not designed to last through lunar night. I detailed previously why Intuitive Machines sent a lander all the way to the moon and didn’t plan on it lasting through the long, cold lunar nights.

But I do want to mention that SLIM, Japan’s moon lander that also fell over, was also not designed to last through the night on the moon. Well, it woke up and started communicating with again Earth today. We still don’t know much about the health of the spacecraft, but we do know the communications equipment survived, so hey, at least that’s much-needed good news, and it may mean that we have hope of Odysseus doing the same.

I’ll keep updating as more information comes in.