Historic moon lander likely on its side, but data are flowing, company official says

In this image from video provided by NASA, Steve Altemus, CEO and co-founder of Intuitive Machines, describes how it is believed the company's Odysseus spacecraft landed on the surface of the moon, during a news conference in Houston on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (NASA via AP)

Intuitive Machine/ NASA On Feb. 22, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander captures a wide field of view image of Schomberger crater on the Moon approximately 125 miles (200 km) uprange from the intended landing site, at approximately 6 miles (10 km) altitude. Intuitive Machines.

ORLANDO, Fla. — A day after a private company made history with a soft landing on the moon, company officials detailed what they think they know from limited data gathered and lack of imagery about the lander, including the likelihood that is on its side.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander Odysseus touched down Thursday at 6:23 p.m. EST near the south pole of moon, making it the first time a commercial company had achieved the feat. It also marked the first soft landing by a U.S.-based moon lander since Apollo 17 in 1972.


“Just to clear up some confusion, we thought we were upright,” said company CEO Steve Altemus during a news conference Friday, which was what the company declared in the hours after touchdown.

He said overnight data collection, though, showed the the lander was at a severe angle and likely on its side, possibly even resting on some sort of rock on the surface.

“So that’s what tells us with fairly certain terms, the orientation of the vehicle, and hopefully we’ll get a picture here this weekend,” Altemus said. That would come from both cameras on board and from a flyby this weekend from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is expected to give a precise location and better view of the lander’s condition.

He said teams believe a leg of the lander caught on the surface as it came in around 6 mph. It was supposed to come in slower at around 2 mph.

“We might have fractured that landing gear and tipped over gently,” Altemus said.

Despite the position, teams have been able to get data, if not yet imagery, from the lander, and its solar arrays have been able to maintain power.

“The vehicle is stable, near or at our intended landing site,” Altemus said. “We do have communications with the lander from the larger radio astronomy dishes around the world that are part of our lunar telemetry network and through the spacecraft from several of the antennas.”

Altemus said photos were coming.

“We’re downloading and commanding downloading data from the buffers in the spacecraft and commanding the spacecraft and trying to get to surface photos because I know that everyone’s hungry for those surface photos,” he said.

One camera that has yet to deliver a photo was created by students and faculty at Daytona Beach’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Called EagleCam and named after the school’s mascot, it was supposed to be deployed shortly before the lander’s touchdown so it could capture images of the descent.

University officials acknowledged a decision was made to keep EagleCam in place as Intuitive Machines worked through a change in the approach of the Nova-C lander.

“Due to complications with Odysseus’ internal navigation system … the decision was made to power down EagleCam during landing and not deploy the device during Odysseus’ final descent,” the university stated in a news release.

Embry-Riddle said it had talked with Intuitive Machines and the plan remains to deploy the camera onto the surface and attempt to capture images of the lander. The timing for that has yet to be decided.

“We plan to eject the camera off the side so it will fall about (100 feet) or so — maybe not that far away — from the lander and get a good shot of the lander position,” Altemus said.

EagleCam is just one of 12 payloads on board, six of which are from NASA, which is the main impetus behind the mission. NASA officials said they had already received data from several payloads including three that were used during descent.

Altemus said the landing position was lucky in terms of the payloads that need to send back data.

“We don’t have active payloads on the panel … facing the surface of the moon, and so therefore, the active payloads that need communications … are all exposed to the outside, which is very fortunate for us,” Altemus said. He did add that some antenna were either damaged or rendered inoperable because of the lander’s position.

NASA officials said they hoped to get eight or nine days out of the six payloads they sent on the mission, which was part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million and handed them about $12 million in scientific hardware.

The company was then tasked to build their own lander, procure their own launch service provider, which in this case came via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center last week, and work through all of the communication needed to get the lander onto the moon and send home data.

This is only the second NASA commercial lunar payload mission, following Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology. That company’s Peregrine lunar lander launched in January but failed to make it to the moon because of a propellant leak that forced its return to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere.

NASA has at least seven more commercial lunar payload contracts for future missions, including up to three more this year. That includes a second moon mission for Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines.

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