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Was the Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission a success?

Let's break down the good and the bad

The Intuitive Machines lander Odysseus is asleep on the lunar surface. 

Let’s talk about the last few days, including FINALLY getting some cool pictures of Odysseus on the surface, what’s been going on with both Odysseus as well as what we’ve found out from Intuitive Machines about the mission, and then break down whether I think it was a success. The press conference on Wednesday had a VERY self-congratulatory tone. The question is, was it earned?

Odysseus is in a deep sleep on the moon

Let’s start with the little lander that could — Odysseus is no longer receiving power to its solar cells. But instead of letting the lander quietly run out of battery and go gently into the good night, they actually pre-emptively shut it down before that point. That way they have some hope of reviving Odysseus in three or so weeks. They pulled this image from Odysseus before it went dark.

Tim Crain, the Chief Technology Officer of Intuitive Machines, said that the batteries aren’t tested for that deep cold (I think the number they were throwing around was -250 degrees F or -156 degrees C, but the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has measured temperatures as cold as -410 degrees F (-246 degrees C) in the South Pole region). Basically, the battery chemistry isn’t going to respond well to the deep cold. 

They’re relatively confident that the solar panels will be fine, but if the batteries don’t last and aren’t there to receive the power then it’s game over. It’s worth noting that the flight computers and radios also aren’t tested to withstand that kind of cold. 

But then again, Japan’s moon lander SLIM also wasn’t expected to survive the lunar night — and it’s woken up twice now. Fingers crossed Odysseus makes it.

We actually have some cool photos to go through!

But let’s move onto the PHOTOS. Here’s what we got from Intuitive Machines, there are a few really interesting things in these photos. Let’s start with this one.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

This picture was taken in the final stages of descent, as Odysseus is coming down onto the moon’s surface. I know this isn’t the best quality, but I think this is actually an awesome photo. You can see the engine here, and the plume of the methalox engine is reacting with the lunar regolith.

You can also see Odysseus’s broken leg front and center. We have a better idea now of what happened during landing, thanks to the press conference this week. (If you need a rundown of the earlier issues with the laser range finders, and someone forgetting to disable a safety switch, here you go). 

Basically, because of a software issue with the navigation algorithm that they missed when creating the patch for Odysseus to use NASA’s LIDAR system, Odysseus was ONLY using its optical navigation instruments and IMU or inertial measurement unit during landing. It did not have altimeter data.

When Odysseus came in for a landing, it was 1.5 km away from its target landing site, at a higher elevation than expected. That’s why it came down faster than expected. 

The landing gear absorbed that impact and the spacecraft skidded. (If you want a really bad animation of this, watch my video at timestamp 3:26.) Because of that, it broke one or two of its legs. The spacecraft did land vertically, it’s important to note, and then after the engine shut off, it gently leaned over at about a 30 degree angle. It didn’t fall violently, remember the moon has 1/6 gravity of the Earth. It was upright for about 2 seconds on the lunar surface.

The International Lunar Observatory also released some photos from their cameras on the lunar surface. This is a wide-field image. This was during descent, and really reveals the local terrain of the lunar surface around the landing area. But this is also the camera that’s supposed to be oriented into space to take pictures of the center of our galaxy from the moon’s surface. Unfortunately it looks like that camera is NOT oriented towards the center of the galaxy, so that’s kind of a bummer. 

Here’s another shot from the International Lunar Observatory’s wide field imager. It looks too blown out to really see anything except….I did some really rough editing in Lightroom, and there’s more here than you think.

Credit: ILOA

Credit: ILOA

here is a piece of the lander’s broken leg.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

This is another photo of the spacecraft on the lunar surface. You can see this leg here isn’t making contact with the surface, because it’s tilted at 30 degrees. In this picture, the sun is on the right side of the image, and this dark spot in the back is a crater. 

Credit: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

If you look at the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image, the white arrow is the lander and the crater at the upper left of the image is the same crater. This was definitely a cool set of pictures to go through

Here’s what was going on with the communications

We also got a ton of information on the communications issues with the lander. I talked previously about my theories that Intuitive Machines was struggling with communication for various reasons, and it turns out, I was right. 

The first few days, apparently they really had trouble establishing stable communication through their private lunar network and had to ask NASA for assistance. Once they got things sorted, Intuitive Machines was able to reliably download data, but that’s why it took so long to get any information or photos. They actually had to work with NASA’s Deep Space Network to figure out where the lander was and establish communications. 

Moon image, credit: NASA, Lander credit Intuitive Machines FCC filing

You might remember I talked about the orientation of the antennas on the lander. The high-gain antenna (pointed to the left) was supposed to do the bulk of communicating with Earth (which would be up in this image). Because of how things ended up oriented, Intuitive Machines ended up using one of the four small antennas to transmit the bulk of the data to the largest dish in their private communications network in Australia. They’ve had about 8 hours a day of pulling as much data off the lander as they can when the positioning is optimal for that dish.

Apparently, because of the orientation of the antennas, they were also receiving two signals from Odysseus: the straight signal from the lander, as well as the opposite polarization from the signals coming off the lander and then bouncing off the lunar surface. They had to work with NASA and the Deep Space Network to clean that up.

As of the press conference Wednesday, the team had downloaded over 350 MB of data, and the lander didn’t go dark until yesterday. That included most of the guidance and control data, all of the propulsion and performance data, and a lot from the NASA and private experiments as well. 

The real question: Was this a successful mission?

Intuitive Machines and NASA have both declared this mission a success, but it’s definitely in their interest to do so. Intuitive Machines, because they’re a private company and they want to make money on doing these kind of missions for commercial partners as well as NASA. NASA, because the Artemis program has been an absolute MESS, with delays everywhere. This was a win they needed, especially after the announcement earlier this year that the next missions would be delayed (which frankly, we all KNEW, but you never want that headline if you’re running the program.) This is a big win, but is it spin or is it actually a win?

People will probably argue about this for a long time, but my honest opinion is — yes, it’s a win. It was a successful mission 

Was it an unmitigated success? No. There were absolutely failures along the way. 

The dreaded laser range finder

Tim Crain did directly address the laser range finder issue, and confirmed that if that system had been operational, they would have made a pinpoint landing in the Malapert A crater and the system would have been able to compensate for any change in elevation. That’s confirmation that, if they hadn’t missed that safety switch, the lander likely would NOT have fallen over.

But what was the point of this mission, and does the lander tipping over mean that it was unsuccessful? I would say no. The mission objective was simply a demonstration of the hardware. Can you get to the moon? Can you soft land on the moon? Can you send data back from the moon? The answer to all of those things is yes, even if none of them happened perfectly. There’s absolutely room for improvement, but the expectations here were pretty basic, and I think Intuitive Machines achieved them. I’m not making excuses for the company, this is how testing spacecraft works. 

In fact, I think they did a pretty good job troubleshooting issues in real time as they came up. The team acknowledged that they could have done better communicating with the public along the way, which I personally would appreciate, but also I understand it’s a small team that was very focused on doing this job. 

Lunar south pole region, Credit: Katelyn Frizzell, Kristen Luchsinger, Alissa Madera, Tyler Paladino, Christian Tai Udovicic, and David Kring, LPI

We found out later about a few critical issues that could have ended the mission early: apparently the liquid methane fuel wasn’t cooling properly at a few points, there was a serious star tracker issue where the star tracker was rejecting data, and they had to send a patch up to fix it, of course we knew about the range finder issue, if I never say the words “laser range finders” again it’ll be too soon, communications issues as well, learning to chill the metal of the engine, drift in the yaw channel of main engine control, too low of an orbit after lunar orbit insertion — so lots of issues to work through and learn from.

Tim Crain said that there were 11 mission critical issues they had to work through over the course of the mission. But that’s how spaceflight works, especially on test missions.

I think it’s really important to give credit where it’s due, and space is really hard. Here’s what I think they did well: I’m impressed with the communication, even if we weren’t getting a lot for awhile there. It’s a private company, they don’t necessarily have to share a lot of this, and I didn’t expect much. I appreciate how frank they’ve been about their mistakes and failures, and I think it sets a really good precedent for commercial spaceflight going forward.

Credit: Intuitive Machines

I do think it’s nice that Intuitive Machines committed to sharing their learnings with other private companies trying lunar missions. It’d be great and I hope they do! That’s how it should work! But also I’m realistic about the fact that it IS a private company, so…I’d love for that to happen but I’ll also I’ll have to see them actually do this to believe it, versus them just saying the thing that sounds nice. 

The bottom line is over half of all lunar landing attempts over the course of history have ended in failure, and they did beat the odds here. I think it’s a successful mission.

So what’s next? Well, in three or so weeks, they’ll try to wake Odysseus up, and I’ll definitely be following that. We still have photos and data to see from a bunch of the instruments, and I’ll make sure anything interesting is in my weekly space news roundup.

Intuitive Machines has two more lunar landings as part of NASA’s CLPS initiative, as well as a commercial landing on the books. They’re also developing a larger lander they call the Nova-D lander. Tim Crain DID say that the next mission will have better cameras, so I’m excited about that, and in the meantime, we’ll see what happens!