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The Odysseus lunar lander is sideways on the moon, company that built it says

By Jackie Wattles, CNN

(CNN) — The Odysseus lunar lander is sideways on the moon, Intuitive Machines, the company that built the vehicle, said during a news conference Friday.

The revelation comes after Intuitive Machines had initially described Odysseus, also called “Odie” or IM-1, as “upright” in an update posted to the social media platform X just after the historic mission made its touchdown on the lunar surface Thursday. But the company’s CEO, Steve Altemus, said data later showed that the spacecraft was likely tilted on its side after having caught one of its feet on a lunar rock.

“We think it came down (moving) about 6 miles an hour this way, and about 2 miles an hour (horizontally along the surface) and caught foot in the surface, and the lander has tipped like this,” Altemus said, using a small model of the lander to demonstrate the suspected issue during a news briefing.

Altemus said only one piece of Odysseus’ cargo is on the side of the spacecraft that’s facing down toward the lunar surface: A piece of art that was sent to the moon by one of Intuitive Machines’ commercial customers.

The CEO also emphasized that the spacecraft remained in stable condition, with its solar panels catching sunlight and fully charging its batteries. Already, some experimental technology payloads from NASA have been put to the test, checking off some key mission objectives.

‘A punch in the stomach’

Notably, Intuitive Machines realized prior to descent that Odysseus had a faulty piece of navigation equipment. And the company opted to bypass the broken pieces and use an experimental NASA instrument that happened to be on board: The Navigation Doppler Radar, or NDL, developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

Altemus said initially learning of the issue was “like a punch in the stomach — that we were going to lose the mission.”

The company’s engineers had to essentially operate as hackers, figuring out a way to patch in data from NASA’s NDL — which was intended to be on a simple demo flight — in the hopes it could save the mission.

The hack ultimately worked, and the spacecraft made it to the lunar surface in operational condition. No other US spacecraft has soft-landed on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, and no commercial spacecraft before Odysseus had ever accomplished such a feat.

The space agency and Intuitive Machines are still working to figure out whether Odysseus can achieve all of its science objectives, according to Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“We are doing an assessment to see: Are there any measurements still to come from any of the NASA supplied payloads that most likely can’t take place particularly because of this new orientation?” Kearns said.

The spacecraft is experiencing some issues that involve the speed and consistency with which they can gather data from Odysseus.

What this means for mission success

The US space agency, as the primary financial backer of the mission, has celebrated the mission as a major win.

“This is a gigantic accomplishment,” Kearns said Friday.

The spacecraft traveled “not just to an area where we landed earlier — decades ago near the equator with the Apollo missions — but in the unusual territory of the (lunar) south pole, which is the focus of our future human Artemis missions,” Kearns said, referring to NASA’s efforts to return astronauts to the moon as soon as later this decade.

Intuitive Machines is still working to assess exactly how much work Odysseus can carry out on the lunar surface and confirm the physical state of the spacecraft after its unexpected fall.

“We’re hopeful to get pictures and really do an assessment of the structure and assessment of all the external equipment,” Altemus said.

The company still has not shared images captured by the spacecraft while on the moon, though it did reveal a shot taken by the lander as it approached lunar surface Thursday. Intuitive Machines also plans to eject a device aboard Odysseus called EagleCam, which could capture an image of the spacecraft from afar, Altemus confirmed on Friday.

All told, Odysseus will likely be able to spend about nine days operating on the lunar surface, according to Tim Crain, Intuitive Machines’ chief technology officer. This is a slightly longer projection than the company offered in a fact sheet prior to launch, which suggested Odie would have “roughly seven days.”

“You’re gonna bring a tear to my eye,” Crain said when asked about how long the spacecraft will operate on the lunar surface.

After nine days, “the sun will move beyond our solar arrays in any configuration,” Crain said. “Once the sun sets on Odie, the batteries will attempt to keep the vehicle warm and alive but eventually, it’ll fall into a deep cold. And then the electronics that we produce just won’t survive the deep cold of lunar night.”

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