A new private American lander on the way to the Moon

The lander of a young American company, which hopes to become the first private company to successfully land on the Moon and the first American device to do so in more than 50 years, has been successfully put into service in space shortly after taking off Thursday from Florida.

The mission, named IM-1, carries the moon lander developed by the Texan company Intuitive Machines, founded in 2013. The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying it took place shortly after 1 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center , on the American east coast.

Once the lander was detached from the rocket’s upper stage, it was ignited and put into service “successfully,” “establishing a stable attitude, charging the solar panels, and radio contact,” said in a release from Intuitive Machines, whose operations control room is located in Houston, Texas.

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 last month, have failed to reproduce this feat.

“We are fully aware of the immense challenges ahead,” said Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, quoted in the press release.

If all goes as hoped, the device will attempt to land on the Moon next week, February 22.

A success would mark a historic milestone for the space sector, as well as the first landing of an American spacecraft on the Moon since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

Lunar South Pole

The model of the lander sent is called Nova-C, and measures more than four meters high.

The device, the copy of which used for this first mission was named Odysseus, is carrying six private cargoes including sculptures by contemporary artist Jeff Koons representing the phases of the Moon.

But above all it carries six scientific instruments from NASA, the main client for this trip.

The mission is part of a new program called CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services), set up by the American space agency which has tasked private companies with taking scientific equipment to the Moon, in order to prepare for the return there. of astronauts.

By relying on the private sector, NASA says it can send more material, more frequently and for less than with vehicles it owns. However, she says she is aware of the risks of failure of some of these missions, entrusted to young companies.

“These daring lunar deliveries will not only carry out scientific experiments on the Moon, but they will also support a growing private space economy,” Bill Nelson, the head of NASA, said in a statement on Thursday.

The contract signed by the American space agency for this first Intuitive Machines mission amounts to $118 million. The company’s stock was up 17% on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday morning.

The planned landing site is a crater near the Moon’s south pole, which is still little explored.

The lunar South Pole is important for NASA, because it is there that it wants to land its astronauts from 2026 at the earliest, as part of the Artemis missions.

The reason: there is water there in the form of ice, which could be exploited.

The six scientific instruments on board should make it possible to study this particular environment.

Four cameras will, for example, observe the descent phase and the dust projected during landing, in order to compare its effects to those of the Apollo moon landings, carried out closer to the equator.

Several missions planned

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

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

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

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

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