Company prepares to attempt first American moon landing since the Apollo program

2024-02-22 07:48:39

Also read: In 2024, heading for the Moon, Mars, Europe and the asteroids

The fully automated descent will begin approximately one hour before landing. Cameras and lasers will allow it to guide itself in real time. At an altitude of 30 meters, the final, vertical descent will begin. It is at this moment that a small machine equipped with cameras, developed by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, will be ejected from the moon to capture the big moment from the outside. Using its engine, Nova-C will have to reduce its speed from 1,800 meters per second to one meter per second by the time its six feet touch the ground.

Lunar South Pole

The location targeted by Intuitive Machines is approximately 300 kilometers from the South Pole of the Moon. The crater which is to act as a landing strip is named Malapert A, after a 17th century astronomer. The lunar South Pole is of interest because there is water there in the form of ice, which could be exploited. NASA wants to send its astronauts there from 2026 with its Artemis missions. It is in particular to prepare for these missions that she seeks to study this region more closely. To do this, it uses a brand new program that it has set up, called CLPS (for “Commercial Lunar Payload Services”).

Instead of developing ships for the Moon itself, the American space agency commissioned private companies to take its scientific equipment there. Intuitive Machines is one of the selected companies, and its contract with NASA is worth $118 million. The goal is to reduce costs for the public agency, to be able to make the trip more frequently, while developing the lunar economy. And this despite the risks of failure. A first mission of the program, led by the American company Astrobotic, failed to reach the Moon last month.

Read also: An American moon lander has disappeared into the Earth’s atmosphere

Seven days of activity

The Intuitive Machines moon landing craft, the example of which used for this mission was named Odysseus, is also carrying six private cargoes. Among them: sculptures by contemporary artist Jeff Koons representing the phases of the Moon. The six NASA scientific instruments on board are focusing on initial observations of this still little-explored region.

Cameras placed under the moon will analyze the amount of dust projected during descent, in order to compare it to the Apollo moon landings. Another instrument will study lunar plasma (a layer of gas charged with electricity), and measure radio waves coming from the Sun and other planets. Odysseus, which is powered by its solar panels, must operate for approximately seven days from the moment of its landing, before night sets in on the lunar South Pole.

Moon landing attempts with varying fortunes

The first soft landing on the Moon was carried out by the Soviet Union, then engaged in a space race with the United States in the midst of the Cold War. On February 3, 1966, the Luna 9 probe landed on the lunar surface using retrorockets and air cushions. It reveals the first images taken on the surface of our natural satellite. In 2023, Russia failed to land its Luna 25 probe on the Moon, marking the failure of its first mission to the Earth’s natural satellite since 1976.

In 1961, stung by the successes of the USSR, President John Kennedy gave America ten years to send a man to the Moon. From there was born the Apollo program, which saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon for the first time, on July 20, 1969. He uttered his famous phrase: “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for humanity”. In total, six spacecraft allowed 12 astronauts to land on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. The United States is still to this day the only country to have sent humans to the Moon.

China on the hidden side

China successfully made its first moon landing in 2013, with its Chang’e 3 probe, named in reference to the goddess of the Moon in Chinese mythology. At the time, no aircraft had landed on the moon for 37 years. In 2019, China became the first nation to land a device on the far side of the Moon without damage. A year later, Chang’e 5 brought back to Earth the first lunar samples in more than 40 years.

Other nations have more recently entered the race. Last summer, India managed to land an unmanned probe, Chandrayaan-3, near the lunar South Pole. A mission whose cost was only $75 million. In January, Japan became the fifth country to successfully complete the maneuver, landing its SLIM module with a very high degree of precision – albeit at a very tilt, posing problems for the operation of its solar panels.

Several private companies have also sought to land on the moon in recent years, so far without success. In 2019, a probe developed by Israeli non-profit SpaceIL, in partnership with one of Israel’s largest defense companies (IAI), crashed on the lunar surface. Thousands of tardigrades, small creatures capable of withstanding extreme radiation, could, however, have survived the crash and still be there. The Hakuto moon lander from the Japanese start-up ispace also crashed in 2023.

Read also: The Japanese Slim module has “resumed operations” on the Moon
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