Moon lander Odysseus cuts mission after sideways touchdown

Alex Omenye
Alex Omenye

Flight control engineers anticipate the loss of contact with the private U.S. moon lander Odysseus on Tuesday morning, terminating the mission five days after its unconventional sideways touchdown, as reported by the spacecraft’s developer, Intuitive Machines, on Monday.

The curtailed lifespan of Odysseus raises concerns about the potential loss of scientific data. Initial estimates from both Intuitive Machines and NASA, its primary customer, indicated that Odysseus was intended to operate on the moon for a duration of seven to ten days.

Details surrounding testing shortcuts and human error have emerged, shedding light on the in-flight failure of the spacecraft’s laser-guided range finders just before its landing last Thursday near the moon’s south pole.

An official from Intuitive Machines attributed the loss of the range finders to the company’s decision to skip a test firing of the laser system, opting for time and cost savings during pre-flight checks at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Mike Hansen, the company’s head of navigation systems, acknowledged the risk, stating, “There were certainly things we could’ve done to test it and actually fire it. They would’ve been very time-consuming and very costly. So that was a risk as a company that we acknowledged and took that risk.”

Earlier, on Friday, Intuitive Machines had revealed that the laser range finders, critical for providing altitude and forward-velocity readings to Odysseus’ autonomous navigation system, were inoperable due to the failure to unlock the lasers’ safety switch before launch on Feb. 15. The safety lock, similar to a firearm’s safety switch, requires manual disabling.

The range-finder issue, identified just hours before the final descent, prompted flight controllers to redirect Odysseus into an additional lunar orbit while devising a makeshift solution to avert a potential catastrophic crash-landing.

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