SpaceX lunar lander 'Odie' blasts off into space, aiming for historic US moon landing

ByJackie Wattles, CNN, CNNWire
Thursday, February 15, 2024
SpaceX lunar lander 'Odie' blasts off into space, aiming for historic US moon landing
Odie lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 1:05 a.m. ET Thursday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The Odysseus lunar lander, nicknamed "Odie" or IM-1, has embarked on a historic journey to the lunar surface - aiming to make the first touchdown of a US-made spacecraft on the moon in five decades.

The launch follows closely on the heels of a separate US lunar landing mission that failed in January. NASA has ramped up the development of robotic spacecraft via private partners to evaluate the lunar environment and identify key resources - such as the presence of water - before it attempts to return astronauts to the moon later this decade.

Odie lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 1:05 a.m. ET Thursday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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The mission had been slated to launch on Wednesday, but an issue with the temperature of propellant needed to power the spacecraft delayed the attempt by 24 hours.

Journey to the moon

The rocket fired Odie into Earth's orbit, blazing to speeds topping 24,600 miles per hour (11 kilometers per second), according to Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based company that developed the spacecraft under contract with NASA through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

Odie's path amounts to "a high-energy fastball pitch towards the moon," as Intuitive Machines CEO Stephen Altemus put it.

After burning through its fuel, the rocket detached from Odie, leaving the lunar lander to fly solo through space. The robotic explorer then consulted an onboard map of the stars so it could orient itself in space, pointing its solar panels toward the sun's rays to charge its batteries.

"We are seeing most everything that we would expect," according to a dispatch from Intuitive Machines' mission control around 2 am ET.

Odie is now on an oval-shaped path around Earth, stretching as far out as 380,000 kilometers (236,100 miles) from home. And about 18 hours into spaceflight, the vehicle will ignite its motor for the first time, continuing its fast-paced trip toward the lunar surface.

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The moon, which orbits roughly 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away from Earth, is expected to give Odie a gentle gravitational tug as the spacecraft approaches, pulling the vehicle toward its cratered surface.

Odie is slated to make its nail-biting touchdown attempt on February 22, aiming for a crater near the moon's south pole.

It will be a dangerous trek. If Odie fails, it will join a growing list of missions that have unsuccessfully sought a lunar touchdown: The first US-built lunar lander to launch in five decades, Astrobotic Technology's Peregrine, was hampered by a critical fuel leak last month. That came after two failed missions from other countries in 2023: one from Russia and another from a company based in Japan.

China, India and Japan are so far the only nations to have soft-landed vehicles on the moon in the 21st century.

What Odie will do on the moon

Odie's trip to the moon can be considered a scouting mission of sorts, designed to assess the lunar environment ahead of NASA's current plan to return a crewed mission to the moon through the Artemis program in late 2026.

The moon's south pole is an area of widespread interest amid a new international space race, as the region is thought to be home to stores of water ice. The precious resource could be converted into drinking water for astronauts or even rocket fuel for missions exploring deeper into space.

Packed on board the lunar lander are six NASA science and technology payloads. They include a radio receiver system that will study lunar plasma, which is created by solar winds and other charged particles raining down on the moon's surface.

Other payloads will test technology that could be used on future lunar landing missions, such as a new sensor that could potentially help guide precision landings.

The Navigation Doppler Lidar, as the sensor is called, "shoots laser beams to the ground and measures spacecraft velocity - that's the speed - and the direction of the flight," said Farzin Amzajerdian, the principal investigator for the lidar payload at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Also on board the lander are technological and commemorative payloads from the private sector. Columbia Sportswear, for example, developed a special insulation material that could help shield Odie from the moon's extreme temperatures. A small sculpture representing the phases of the moon - designed in consultation with artist Jeff Koons - will be tucked on board as well.

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Odie also houses a camera system called EagleCam that was developed by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. The device is set to pop off of the lunar lander as it approaches the surface and capture images of the vehicle's descent.

"Hopefully, we'll get a bird's-eye view of that landing to share with the public," Altemus said.

Odie is expected to operate for seven days on the lunar surface before darkness falls on the landing site, blocking the spacecraft's solar panels from the sun and plunging it into freezing temperatures.

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