Commercial lunar lander returns America to the Moon

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander named Odysseus cruises over the near side of the Moon on 21 February 2024, a day ahead of its scheduled landing attempt. Image: Intuitive Machines.

A lander built by the Houston-based company Intuitive Machines touched down near the Moon’s South Pole on Thursday. It was the first lunar landing by a US spacecraft in more than 50 years and the first commercially-operated vehicle to successfully reach the surface.

The Odysseus lander, also known as IM-1, fired its main engine continuously for 10 minutes before touching down at 11:23pm GMT. It’s the first time a methane-oxygen propulsion system has been used on a space exploration mission. During Thursday’s descent the engine was gradually throttled down to bring the craft to a soft landing.

There were some anxious moments when communications with Odysseus were lost. After several minutes a weak signal from the craft’s high gain antenna was detected and that was good enough to declare a successful landing.

“We can confirm without a doubt our equipment is on the surface of the Moon and we are transmitting,” said flight director Tim Crain.

Later Mission Control started receiving data, confirming the spacecraft, which is about the size of an old-style telephone box, was standing upright at its landing site, near the crater Malapert A, about 300 km from the Moon’s South Pole.

It was the first commercially built and operated lander to successfully reach the surface after private missions from Israel, Japan and, most recently, the U.S. company Astrobotic all ended in failure.

An artist’s impression of the Odysseus lander on the moon. Image: Intuitive Machines.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine and Intuitive Machines Odysseus missions were funded in part by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme which is designed to pave the way for the planned Artemis missions with astronauts aboard.

Odysseus is carrying six NASA payloads and a camera built by students that was to be jettisoned right before touchdown to capture views of the landing. NASA and Intuitive Machines are due to hold a news conference on Friday when the first images from the lander might be revealed.