Private US spaceship takes off for the Moon

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center on the Intuitive Machines' Nova-C moon lander mission, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 15 February, 2024.AFP

A US spaceship attempting a lunar landing lifted off early Thursday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the second such private-led effort this year after the first ended in failure.

Intuitive Machines, the Houston company leading mission ‘IM-1’, hopes to become the first non-government entity to achieve a soft touchdown on the Moon, and to land the first US robot on the surface since the Apollo missions more than five decades ago.

Its hexagonal-shaped Nova-C lander named ‘Odysseus’ blasted off on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket shortly after 1:00 am local time (0600 GMT).

IM-1 was supposed to blast off on Wednesday, but the launch was postponed after SpaceX discovered abnormal temperatures as it attempted to fuel up the lander.

Space agency NASA confirmed the lander had successfully lifted off. "Confirmed: The Nova-C lander has separated and continues its trip to the Moon," NASA wrote on social media platform X.

The lander has a new type of supercooled liquid methane and oxygen engine giving it the power to reach its destination quickly, avoiding prolonged exposure to a region of high radiation surrounding the Earth known as the Van Allen belt.

Intuitive Machine's Trent Martin told reporters this week that the "opportunity to return the United States to the Moon for the first time since 1972 is a feat of engineering that demands a hunger to explore."

Despite the postponement, the craft is still due to reach its landing site Malapert A on 22 February, an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the south pole.

NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

NASA paid Intuitive Machines USD 118 million to ship science hardware to better understand and mitigate environmental risks for astronauts, the first of whom are scheduled to land no sooner than 2026.

There is more colorful cargo aboard as well, including a digital archive of human knowledge and 125 mini-sculptures of the Moon by the artist Jeff Koons.

After touchdown, the payloads are expected to run for roughly seven days before lunar night sets in on the South Pole, rendering Odysseus inoperable.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center on the Intuitive Machines' Nova-C moon lander mission, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 15 February, 2024.

Treacherous terrain

IM-1 is the second mission under a NASA initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which the space agency created to delegate cargo services to the private sector to achieve savings and to stimulate a wider lunar economy.

The first, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, launched in January, but its Peregrine spacecraft experienced an engine anomaly that caused a fuel leak and it was eventually brought back to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Soft landing a robot on the Moon is challenging because it has to navigate treacherous terrain with communications subject to a lag of several seconds, and use its thrusters for a controlled descent in the absence of an atmosphere that would support parachutes.

Apart from Astrobotic's failed attempt, two other private initiatives got close: Beresheet, operated by an Israeli nonprofit, crash-landed in 2019; while Japanese company ispace also had a "hard landing" last year.

Only five nations have succeeded: the Soviet Union was first, then the United States, which is still the only country to also put people on the surface.

In the United States's long absence, China has landed three times since 2013, India in 2023, and Japan was the latest, last month -- though its robot has struggled to stay powered on after a wonky touchdown left its solar panels pointing the wrong way.

Intuitive Machines has two additional launches scheduled for this year, while another Texas company, Firefly Aerospace has one too. Astrobotic will get another shot in late 2024, carrying a NASA rover to the Moon's south pole.

NASA is increasingly purchasing services rather than hardware from commercial partners, unlike during the Cold War when it had a nearly unlimited budget and dictated contracts down to the last bolt.

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