Monday, April 15, 2024

The US returns to the moon half a century after the Apollo program | Science

This Thursday, half a century after the Apollo 17 mission, a U.S. spacecraft will reach the moon. That is the Odysseus module, which was successfully launched last week by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If the mission is successful, it would be the first lunar landing completed by a private company, Intuitive Machines, which is owned by the Iranian-born U.S. billionaire businessman Kamal Ghaffarian. NASA estimates that the landing will take place at 4:24 p.m. E.S.T. You can follow the signal live here.

The new lunar landing attempt comes after a rough few months for other space race competitors and on the heels of the recent fiascos of a Japanese and a U.S. mission. Odysseus is carrying six devices that NASA wants to place safely on the gray dust. On Wednesday, the Intuitive Machines lander fired its engine on the back side of the moon while out of contact with Earth. During one of the mission’s most sensitive moments, flight controllers at the company’s Houston headquarters had to wait for the spacecraft to emerge to find out if the lander was in orbit or drifting away aimlessly.

All day Thursday, controllers have been lowering the craft’s orbit from about 60 miles (92 kilometers) to 6 miles (10 kilometers) in a crucial maneuver on the opposite face of the moon. Then, they targeted the descent near the south pole of the moon.

Odysseus is tracking its position with cameras, comparing crater patterns with stored maps and measuring its altitude with laser beams on the surface. About ¾ mile (1.2 kilometers) from the landing site, the spacecraft will pivot into a vertical position, and sensors will search for a safe place to land. During the last 49 feet (15 meters) of the descent, it will stop using the camera and the altitude measurement laser so as not to be tricked by the dust from the engine exhaust.

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