Updated Feb 22, 2024 - Science

U.S. returns to the moon as first private spacecraft touches down

Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander in Houston in October 2023.

Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander in Houston in October 2023. Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Space company Intuitive Machines became the first business to land a private spacecraft on the moon on Thursday.

Why it matters: The successful touchdown could be the genesis of a lunar economy and the anticipated era of privatized, for-profit moon exploration.

  • Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lunar lander — nicknamed "Odysseus" — is the first fully robotic lander developed in the U.S. to touch down on the moon since the Surveyor 7 spacecraft in 1968.
  • It's also the first U.S.-developed lander to land on the moon since Apollo 17's Lunar Module "Challenger" shuttled two astronauts to its surface on Dec. 11, 1972.

The latest: Confirmation for Odysseus' landing was delayed by several minutes because of communication issues between equipment on Earth and the spacecraft.

  • After a nail-biting 16 minutes, the company said it detected a faint signal from the Odysseus.

Details: The lander launched into space from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last week and traveled over 621,000 miles before successfully entering lunar orbit on Wednesday

Of note: The experiments are crucial for upcoming missions in NASA's Artemis program, which includes a manned lunar landing currently scheduled for 2026.

  • Through the experiments, NASA will collect data on Odysseus' movement and fuel usage during its descent as well as conditions in the moon's south pole region.
  • The region is home to craters with perpetually dark and extremely cold interiors but warm rims that receive almost continuous sunlight.
  • NASA is interested in such craters because they could one day host vital support systems for humanity's first base on the moon, which may be developed during future Artemis missions.

What they're saying: "Today, for the first time in more than a half century, the U.S. has returned to the moon," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said after the landing.

  • "Today, for the first time in the history of humanity, a commercial company — an American company — launched and led the voyage up there," he added. "Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA's commercial partnerships."

The big picture: Intuitive Machines has two other lunar lander missions planned in 2024.

  • Astrobotic Technology, another private space company, will make a second attempt at a lunar landing later this year after its first try last month failed hours after launch.
  • Firefly Aerospace also has one planned this year.
  • The missions are part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, which allows it to hire private space companies to deliver its lunar instruments.

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

Editor's note: This story was updated with the latest info on the landing and additional context.

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