Updated Feb 26, 2024 - Science

First private moon landing mission to be cut short after spacecraft tip over

An arrow pointing to Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander on the moon's surface on  Feb. 24.

An arrow pointing to Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lander on the moon's surface on Feb. 24. Photo: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

The mission for the first private spacecraft to land on the moon will be cut short after the vehicle stops working on Tuesday, space company Intuitive Machines said Monday.

Why it matters: It was the first successful U.S. moon landing mission since Apollo 17 in 1972, and "the furthest south any vehicle has been able to land on the Moon and establish communication with ground controllers," per the company.

  • But the spacecraft ended up on its side after touchdown, in part because it descended faster than expected.
  • The cutoff will be two to three days shorter than the week NASA and Intuitive Machines' other customers had been expecting.

Details: The spacecraft, nicknamed "Odysseus," landed within almost a mile of its intended landing site in the Malapert A crater in the near the south pole of the moon.

  • Company officials said at a press conference Friday that they believed one of Odysseus' landing legs caught the lunar surface, causing it to tip over.
  • Before attempting the landing, controllers had to scramble to find a backup to key laser rangefinders that weren't working. A safety switch for the lasers hadn't been disengaged before launch.
  • The spacecraft ended up in a degraded crater sloped at 12 degrees, according to NASA. Being on its side, the spacecraft's communication with Earth was hampered but the company was able to detect a faint signal from it.

Of note: Few spacecraft have landed in the moon's south pole region because its abundance of craters, extreme light contrast and long shadows make it difficult to determine exactly where the ground is.

  • Once a spacecraft lands, the region's extraordinary temperature swings can also wreak havoc on equipment.
  • All of the Apollo missions landed near the moon's equator on the side that faces Earth, where the topography is smoother and the lighting is more consistent.

The big picture: At most, the company and its customers had expected to be able to operate their payloads aboard Odysseus for roughly seven days before the lunar night set on the moon's south pole.

  • However, because the spacecraft's solar panels were affected by the tip over, the spacecraft will have less light exposure than anticipated.
  • The company said its flight controllers intend to collect data from the lander until it goes into the dark and is inoperable, which they expect will be around Tuesday morning.
  • The landing was the first successful mission stemming from NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, which allows it to hire private space companies to deliver its lunar instruments.

What's next: Intuitive Machines has two other lunar lander missions planned in 2024, both destined for the south pole region.

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

Editor's note: This story was updated to include details about the difficulty of landing on the moon's south pole.

Go deeper