Moon Lander Odysseus Falls Over on Moon
This image provided by Intuitive Machines shows a broken landing leg on the Odysseus lander. The lander touched down near the moon's south pole on Feb. 22, 2024, but then fell over on its side, hampering communications. (Intuitive Machines via AP)

Moon Lander Odysseus Falls Over on Moon

February 28th, 2024

In recent space exploration news, the pioneering Odysseus lunar lander, developed by Intuitive Machines, experienced a mishap when it arrived on the moon. It was a historic moment, as this was the first private U.S. spacecraft to make a lunar landing. However, the excitement was compromised when Odysseus had a rough touchdown near the moon's south pole, resulting in a broken leg and an unintended topple onto its side. This unfortunate event caused significant issues with both communications and the lander's ability to garner power. The descent was more dramatic than planned, as the lander came in at excessive speed and skidded, causing it to flip onto a slope after briefly standing upright. This was due to a divergence from the scheduled flat landing site by one mile, as the lander ended up at a higher elevation than intended. Upon scrutiny, it emerged that a human error prior to takeoff had rendered the lander's internal navigation system inoperative. Consequently, NASA's experimental lasers had to be used, leading to miscalculated guidance. Despite the precarious situation, the lander was still operational, producing solar power while lying on its side. Nonetheless, expectations were dim concerning its survival through the approaching long and frigid lunar night, which could render its electronic systems and batteries inoperative. The incident signifies a premature conclusion to the mission that marked the U.S.’s return to the lunar surface in over fifty years and was part of NASA's commercial program for delivering payloads to the moon. Prior to the mishap, the spacecraft had outperformed another recent mission from a competing company that had ended in failure. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted the partial success of the Odysseus mission, as the scientific experiments onboard remained functional. He remarked on the distinction between crewed flights and those carrying equipment when considering mission outcomes. The mission carried a payload including historical flags from the Apollo era, innovative insulating fabrics, artwork, and scientific equipment. It is still regarded as a significant endeavor given its status as the first private moon landing, a milestone previously only attained by a small number of nations. Looking forward, the setbacks have not diminished NASA's commitment to exploring the moon's south pole, which is intended to be the site for future Artemis program astronaut landings. The Apollo program's precedent, with its series of successful manned moon landings, serves as inspiration for ongoing and future lunar exploration.
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💭 Discussion Questions

. What were the primary challenges that the Odysseus lunar lander faced upon touching down on the moon's surface, and what were their implications for the mission?
. How did a human error affect the Odysseus lander's mission, and what were the resulting actions taken to address the navigation issues?
. Despite the mishap with Odysseus, what factors contribute to the mission still being considered partially successful, and what is NASA's perspective on the importance of the mission's achievements?

📖 Vocabulary

🌐 Cultural context

The article is from the United States, a country at the forefront of space exploration with a history that includes the Apollo moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s. The reference to NASA indicates its involvement, which is the U.S. government's space agency with a legacy of pioneering space missions. Private companies in the U.S. have become key players in space exploration, often collaborating with NASA. The Artemis program mentioned is NASA's plan to return humans to the moon.

🧠 Further reading

Commercial Lunar Payload Services
NASA has been working on a strategic initiative, known as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which involves contracting commercial entities to deliver small robotic landers and rovers to the Moon. Primarily, these lunar missions focus on the south pole region to conduct scouting for resources, experiment with resource utilization directly on the Moon's surface, and advance lunar science. These efforts are part of a broader program called Artemis that aims to enhance the exploration of the Moon. Through CLPS, NASA utilizes fixed-price contracts to acquire complete service delivery, spanning from Earth to the Moon's surface, emphasizing the transportation of payloads. The management of the CLPS program is a collective effort that involves NASA's Science Mission Directorate in collaboration with Human Exploration, Operations, and Space Technology Mission directorates. They expect the participating contractors to oversee a comprehensive suite of operations. This includes integrating, accommodating, and transporting NASA payloads, as well as carrying out their operations on the Moon. The range of necessary services encompasses launch vehicles, lander spacecraft designed for the Moon, systems for lunar surface activity, vehicles for re-entry into Earth, and the corresponding support resources. To date, eight missions have been delegated to contractors under this program, with two exceptions. One contract was withdrawn after being awarded, and another was canceled due to the contractor's bankruptcy. The vision for lunar exploration and the utilization of the Moon's natural resources has been part of NASA's long-term goals. Regular missions carrying instruments, experiments, and other payloads to the Moon are deemed crucial. After the cancellation of the Resource Prospector rover study in April 2018, NASA reassured that its plans for Moon surface exploration would persist, albeit guided by the newly conceptualized CLPS program. This program was then formally introduced in April 2018, culminating in a formal request for proposal in September 2018, as NASA began actively soliciting commercial lunar flight services.

Lunar lander
A spacecraft designed to touch down on the Moon's surface is known as a lunar lander. Until the present date in 2023, the Apollo Lunar Module stands as the solitary example of a lunar lander deployed for crewed missions. Between 1969 and 1972, this module played a pivotal role in the United States' Apollo Program, successfully completing six Moon landings. In addition to the Apollo missions, there have been various uncrewed landings on the Moon, some of which have even managed to collect and return lunar samples back to Earth. Designing a lunar lander requires the consideration of numerous factors, including the type and weight of the payload, the frequency of flights, propulsion needs, and physical design limitations. Other critical considerations involve the total energy needed for the mission, its duration, the planned activities on the lunar surface, and, for crewed missions, the requirements for life support systems. As the Moon has a relatively high gravitational pull when compared to asteroids—though less than any of the planets—and lacks an atmosphere, landers cannot slow down using atmospheric drag (aerobraking) and must instead employ onboard propulsion systems to decelerate and land gently. The history of lunar landings began with the Luna program, initiated by the Soviet Union. From 1958 to 1976, the Luna missions included a series of robotic impactors, flybys, orbiters, and landers. Luna 9, achieving the first successful soft landing on the lunar surface, marked a groundbreaking moment on February 3, 1966, after a series of 11 unsuccessful attempts. Subsequent Luna missions from 1972 to 1976 successfully returned samples of the lunar soil to Earth, and two Luna missions in 1970 and 1973 landed robotic rovers named Lunokhod on the Moon. Overall, the Luna program attained seven soft landings out of 27 attempts. In 1966, the United States saw

Space technology
Space technology encompasses a variety of equipment and methods used beyond Earth's atmosphere. This includes spacecraft, satellites, and space stations, as well as the technology required for deep-space communication and in-space propulsion. It also covers essential ground support, infrastructure, equipment, and operational procedures. Everyday services like weather prediction, remote sensing for environmental monitoring, satellite-based navigation, satellite television, and some forms of long-distance communication are all heavily dependent on space infrastructure. Space technology has greatly benefited fields such as astronomy and Earth sciences. Additionally, innovations that originate from space exploration can influence and enhance economic sectors on Earth. The Soviet Union was the first to achieve a milestone in space technology by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, followed by the first successful human spaceflight in 1961 aboard Vostok 1 with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. These early missions, often controlled automatically or from the ground due to uncertainty about the effects of weightlessness on humans, paved the way for subsequent exploration. Moreover, the Soviet Union's Luna 2 was the first probe to reach the Moon in 1959, while Luna 3 captured the first images of the Moon's far side the same year. The Apollo 8 mission of the United States marked another historic moment in 1968 when its crew became the first humans to orbit another celestial body.