Updated Feb 15, 2024 - Science

SpaceX launches historic private lunar landing attempt

a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Nova-C lander for the IM-1 mission launches from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Nova-C lander launches on Feb. 15 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo: Paul Hennessy/Anadolu via Getty Images

Intuitive Machines became the latest company to attempt a private lunar landing after its spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Thursday.

Why it matters: If the company's mission is successful, it will be the first U.S. robotic lunar landing since the Surveyor 7 spacecraft in 1968 and may mark the start of the anticipated era of for-profit moon exploration.

  • Liftoff was planned for early Wednesday morning, but SpaceX postponed it until 1:05am EST Thursday morning because of fuel temperature anomalies during launch preparations.
  • The lander is scheduled to spend a week in space before attempting to land on the moon on Feb. 22, per NBC News.

Here's how the company stacks up against competitors:

  • The Intuitive Machines mission, dubbed "IM-1" by the company, is also the first of five private moon missions this year.
  • Astrobotic Technology, another private space company, attempted to become the first to land a commercial spacecraft on the moon last month, but the mission failed just hours after launch.
  • Astrobotic Technology's lander was carrying cremated human remains and DNA collected by two other private companies and NASA science experiments.

Driving the news: Japan became the fifth country to land a spacecraft on the moon last month after a robotic explorer developed by its space agency touched down in the Sea of Nectar.

  • After launch, Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lander is expected to reach the moon on Feb. 22 and will attempt to shuttle a host of NASA science experiments to the lunar south pole region.
  • The seven NASA instruments on board will observe fine dust just above the lunar surface and take precise measurements to determine Nova-C's location, movement and fuel usage during its descent.
  • NASA is particularly interested in the moon's south pole region because it's home to extreme — but contradictory — light and temperature conditions and could one day host manned lunar missions.

Of note: Being a private spacecraft, the Nova-C lander will be carrying several payloads from other companies and organizations.

  • These include the EagleCam, a camera built by students and faculty at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University that will snap a "selfie" of Nova-C during descent.
  • It will also put down a cube carrying artist Jeff Koons' 125 miniature stainless steel sculptures depicting the phases of the moon.

By the numbers: After IM-1, Intuitive Machines has two other lunar lander missions planned this year.

The big picture: The five missions are part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, a program the space agency started in 2018 to contract private companies to deliver its instruments to the moon's south pole region.

  • So far, 14 companies have developed robotic landers and rovers and are eligible to bid for NASA payload contracts.

How it works: The companies are required to carry NASA's experiments, but they can also deliver private payloads if there's room aboard their spacecrafts.

  • NASA's experiments will collect data primarily supporting NASA's Artemis lunar explorations program.
  • The space agency currently expects to complete the first manned lunar landing in five decades in 2026, though the Artemis program has faced several delays so far.
  • The last manned lunar mission was Apollo 17 in 1972.

Go deeper: First U.S.-India joint space mission will deliver hyper-detailed view of Earth

Editor's note: This story was updated with new developments.

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