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Private lunar lander returns U.S. to the moon 50 years later. Here's what to know

The IM-1 Nova-C lander, from Houston-based Intuitive Machines, just became the first private spacecraft to land on the moon in one piece.
Intuitive Machines
The IM-1 Nova-C lander, from Houston-based Intuitive Machines, just became the first private spacecraft to land on the moon in one piece.

The U.S. just landed a commercial mission on the surface of the moon, nailing its first lunar landing in more than 50 years.

The robotic probe known as Odysseus successfully touched down near the lunar south pole at 6:23 p.m. ET on Thursday.

It's also the first spacecraft made by a private company to pull off a moon landing. The spacecraft, built by the Houston-based company Intuitive Machines,took off from Florida last week aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The IM-1 mission is one of several that NASA has purchased from private companies as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson hailed the feat as the "landing of a lifetime."

"Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA's commercial partnerships," he said.

The space agency is paying a fixed price of a little over $100 million for this mission — a relative bargain when it comes to space exploration. On board are several NASA experiments that will be used to study the environment around the lander and to develop some new technologies for future landings.

The historic landing wasn't without its hiccups.

While in orbit, Odysseus couldn't turn on a laser instrument designed to help it safely find its way to the lunar surface. An unexpected backup solution was on board: NASA called on its experimental, lidar-based rangefinder, that it hadn't planned on using to guide this landing.

A unexpected communications delay led to another tense moment within minutes of anticipated touchdown. When officials announced that they had reestablished contact with the spacecraft, Odysseus returned the good news.

"Houston, Odysseus has found a new home," IM-1 mission director Tim Crain declared on the NASA livestream after the landing was confirmed.

Intuitive Machines' Odysseus lunar lander was carried into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 15.
Gregg Newton / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Intuitive Machines' Odysseus lunar lander was carried into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 15.

Odysseus landed near Malapert crater — a large crater near the moon's south pole. That location offers several advantages, says Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Landing sites near the south pole experience near-continuous sunlight, which can power a spacecraft's solar cells for longer; and some of south pole's dark craters are believed to be home to water in the form of ice.

"Water is important because you can split it apart into hydrogen and oxygen, so you have oxygen to breathe," she says. The two elements are "also components that you can use for rocket fuel."

"The ultimate goal of some of this is to use the moon's resources to enable exploration further out into the solar system," she says.

NASA hopes the CLPS program will help build a network of private suppliers that will allow the United States to once again land astronauts on the lunar surface. It wants commercial companies to scout out locations, land scientific instruments and rovers, and pave the way for human exploration.

But the Odysseus probe also includes several commercial payloads.

"They wanted to facilitate the commercial sector, and you can see that in action on this Intuitive Machines flight," says Chris Quilty, the co-CEO of Quilty Space, which analyzes the space business.

Among the commercial products on board is a space-age fabric from the sportswear manufacturer Columbia, a few pieces of private art and a small test of a system to securely back up data on the moon.

Data "is the most precious asset that we have as a technological civilization," says Chris Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar Data Holdings, a Florida-based company that wants to build data centers on the lunar surface. "Do we keep it down here where we've got the wars, storms, weather, network intrusion issues ... or do we put it somewhere where there is no climate change? Where there is no atmosphere?"

Stott says his company has already successfully stored and retrieved a digital copy of the Declaration of Independence from the lander. He has future clients, including the state of Florida, looking to store several terabytes of data on the moon in a future mission.

Odysseus' ability to stick the landing was not a given. Privately funded lunar missions from Israel and Japan have both crashed in recent years, and another NASA-backed mission from the company Astrobotic fell back to Earth in January after suffering a fuel leak.

Even though Neil Armstrong and other astronauts landed perfectly on the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, lunar landings are still tough, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who closely follows spaceflight.

"We feel like it's a solved problem, but it's really still cutting-edge," McDowell says.

Robotic missions like Odysseus must automatically fly themselves down to the surface — they can't use parachutes because there's no air there.

Following Odysseus' autonomous landing, mission director Crain said, "What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the Moon and we are transmitting,"

Copyright 2024 NPR

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.