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US-made lander reaches Moon intact, ending series of failures

A lander from Houston-based startup Intuitive Machines touched down on the moon, making it the first private spacecraft to land on the lunar surface intact

In this photo courtesy of Intuitive Machines, Odysseus passes over the near side of the Moon following lunar orbit during the IM-1 mission on February 21, 2024.(AFP)

By Bloomberg

LAST PUBLISHED 23.02.2024  |  06:10 PM IST

A lander from a Houston-based startup touched down on the moon on Thursday, making it the first private spacecraft to land on the lunar surface intact. 

The Intuitive Machines Inc. lander, nicknamed Odysseus, reached the moon at 6:23 p.m. US East Coast time on Thursday, though a brief communications breakdown meant it wasn’t clear of the exact status of the spacecraft. It was the first time a US-made spacecraft has made it there in one piece since 1972, when NASA was carrying out the Apollo program. 

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The success ends a string of failures by private groups looking to land on the moon and bodes well for Intuitive’s aim of creating a business ferrying payloads and experiments there. It’s hoped the landing will provide an up-close look at the moon’s south pole region and offer NASA new information as it aims to return humans to the lunar surface.

Three other private-sector entities have unsuccessfully attempted to softly place landers on the moon since 2019. In January, a company called Astrobotic had to forgo the landing of its vehicle after an engine mishap in space crippled its chances.

Intuitive Machines also overcame difficulties throughout its mission. Prior to landing, lasers on Odysseus designed to navigate the moon’s terrain weren’t working properly, so Intuitive Machines had to switch to a NASA lidar instrument. The company sent the lander on an extra lap around the moon to upload a software patch to boost the lidar’s capability

The startup and Astrobotic were both partially backed by NASA, which is seeking to further explore the moon as part of its Artemis program. The US space agency’s goal is develop a sustainable presence on and around the moon, to learn how to live off of other worlds.

Intuitive Machines holds contracts with NASA to deliver two additional landers to the moon’s surface in the coming years. NASA paid a little less than $118 million to Intuitive Machines for this mission, up from an original contract amount worth $77 million awarded in 2019.

The company’s shares have more than doubled so far this year, as of Thursday’s close, making the company worth about $800 million. 

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Its lander launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 15 and reached the moon’s orbit six days later. On this trip, the company is carrying six payloads for NASA and five from commercial customers, including sculptures from artist Jeff Koons.

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