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The cost of moon landings

Last week marked a milestone as the first commercial landing on the moon took place. Intuitive Machine’s “Odysseus” successfully made the USA’s first soft unmanned lunar landing in over 50 years. Having taken off on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets (the reusable ones that can land vertically) the spacecraft then descended onto the lunar surface 6 days later on 21st February.

This achievement heralds a new era in which a commercial spacecraft on a commercial mission took off using a commercial space rocket, something which we can expect to see more of over the coming years.


While technically successful the “IM-1” mission has not been without its issues, the first of which was experienced with its “Star tracker” navigation system en-route to the moon. This hiccup was overcome, allowing the craft to successfully orient itself before reaching the moon.


Then, two unlikely events which when combined sum up the calamitous yet ingenious nature of humankind, unfolded in front of our eyes.


The critical laser rangefinder system which would have guided the craft down to the lunar surface failed because “someone forgot to flip the switch” before takeoff. Without it, the lander would certainly fail to make it to the surface. In an extraordinarily fortuitus event, Odysseus just happened to be carrying an experimental NASA payload called the “Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing”. The teams on the ground managed to reprogramme Odysseus to use data from this untested equipment and as luck would have it, it worked. The lander was able to make its descent.


After what had seemed like an unlikely touchdown, there was much rejoicing. But it soon became clear that something wasn’t right. Odysseus had fallen over, limiting its functionality and ability to communicate. Whilst it will be able to provide plenty of useful data it remains unclear how many of the scientific payloads can be deployed, if any. With two weeks of “lunar night” now approaching, time is running out for the little lander, who’s batteries will die without the sun’s rays to keep it powered.


Odysseus is not designed to survive the harsh cold of nighttime on the moon so what happens next is still unclear. The lunar lander could be doomed, which may be a costly problem for its operators. As Reuters report, stocks in the space company dropped over 25% just today as the mission’s fate became clearer.

However today, in another strange but related twist, just as Odysseus’s hopes seem to be fading, another lander, which suffered a very similar fate only last month unexpectedly woke up. Not only that, but it has been communicating happily with planet earth and the Japanese team behind it have said they plan to resume the SLIM crafts scientific studies in the near future.


Maybe those stocks could be worth something after all…


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