Launch of a new American private lunar lander

Launch of a new American private lunar lander

After technical problems the day before, a rocket took off on the night of Wednesday to Thursday with the lander of a young American company that wants to be the first private company to successfully land on the moon.

The launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket took place at 1:06 a.m. from Florida (06:06 GMT) on Thursday.

A first attempt to start had to be aborted in the night from Tuesday to Wednesday. The process is more delicate than usual launches for SpaceX, which must fill the lander with its cryogenic fuel (liquid methane and oxygen) before fueling its own rocket.

The first attempt had a problem with the methane temperature, which led to a shift.

The mission, called IM-1, carries the lunar lander developed by the Texas company Intuitive Machines, founded in 2013.

After launch, the lander must detach from the upper stage of the rocket and be supplied with power. Communication must then be established with the Intuitive Machines control room in Houston, Texas.

A first thrust of the engine is then planned to check its function and adjust the flight path towards the moon.

The journey will be quick: if everything goes as planned, the device will attempt to land on the moon next week, on February 22nd.

India and Japan recently successfully landed on the lunar surface, becoming the fourth and fifth countries to do so after the Soviet Union, the United States and China.

But several private companies, including another American company, have failed to repeat this feat.

If Intuitive Machines is successful, it would be a historic milestone for the space industry, including the first landing of an American spacecraft on the moon since the end of the Apollo program more than 50 years ago.

lunar south pole

The model of the lander sent is called Nova-C and is more than four meters high. The copy used for this first mission was named Odysseus.

It carries six private cargoes, including sculptures by contemporary artist Jeff Koons depicting the phases of the moon.

But most importantly, it carries six scientific instruments from NASA, the main customer of this trip.

The mission is part of a new program called CLPS launched by the American space agency that has hired private companies to bring scientific equipment to the moon to prepare for the return of astronauts.

By relying on the private sector, NASA says it can ship more material more frequently and for less money than with vehicles it owns.

The contract signed by NASA for this first Intuitive Machines mission is worth $118 million.

The planned landing site is a crater near the moon's south pole that is still poorly explored.

The lunar south pole is important for NASA because it does not want to land its astronauts there until 2026 at the earliest as part of the Artemis missions.

The reason: There is water there in the form of ice that could be used.

The six scientific instruments on board are intended to make it possible to study this special environment.

For example, four cameras will observe the descent phase and the dust projected during landing to compare its effects with those of the Apollo moon landings carried out closer to the equator.

Multiple missions planned

The first American company, Astrobotic, which is also under contract with NASA for the CLPS program, failed to reach the moon in January.

A new Astrobotic test and two more Intuitive Machines missions (IM-2 and IM-3) are already planned for this year.

A third American company, Firefly Aerospace, is also scheduled to attempt the adventure in 2024.

Tests by other Israeli and Japanese companies ended in crashes in 2019 and 2023.