The Odysseus Lunar Lander's demise explained

Commercial Lunar Payload Services Announcement
Commercial Lunar Payload Services Announcement / NASA/GettyImages

When the Odysseus lunar lander became the first piece of American hardware on the moon's surface last week, there was some uncertainty about the state of the lander. While it was confirmed that the landing was soft and that the lander was intact, Houston-based company Intuitive Machines, who built Odysseus, was initially cagey about confirming that it was in perfect working order. Now, it has been confirmed that Odysseus is lying on its side. As a result, Odysseus's mission cutoff will be two or three days earlier than expected.

Odysseus's position means communications between the craft and earth have been hampered. The solar panels have also been affected, meaning Odysseus will be unable to charge its batteries.

Intuitive Machines has announced that the mission cutoff will take place at some point today.

Why is Odysseus lying on its side?

We don't know, specifically. Perhaps one of its legs got caught on a rock as it moved horizontally, perhaps one of its leg struts broke, perhaps it landed on an uneven surface. But with all of these possibilities, it's not considered a mystery.

Odysseus landed in the Malapert A crater near the moon's south pole, because its mission was to scout locations for a manned mission scheduled for 2026. The moon's south pole is potentially a rich source of ice and other minerals that could be valuable resources for future explorers. Unfortunately, the harsh contrast, long shadows, and abundance of craters at the south pole makes it difficult for approaching craft to discern exactly where the ground is.

For this reason, all of the Apollo missions landed near the moon's equator.

This difficulty was compounded by a laser system that Odysseus used to measure distance and speed being switched off. However, a NASA experimental navigation system was patched into the lander's software at the last minute.

So, is the Odysseus mission a failure?

The Odyssey mission was the first lunar landing by a private company, and shares in Intuitive Machines plunged by 35 percent on Monday. By business standards, it's hard to view it as anything other than a failure.

But from the standard of space missions, this was a qualified success. Two other lunar landers have met a fiery demise over the moon in the past year, and more than half of all lunar landing attempts have ended in failure. Not to mention the aforementioned difficulty of landing at the south pole. Yet despite these difficulties, Odysseus made a soft landing and did transmit some data.

Besides, in the high-stakes world of space exploration, every frustrated ambition is a learning opportunity.

One company for whom this was an unqualified success is Columbia Sportswear, who produced the heat-reflective film that protects Odysseus's cryogenic propulsion tank. Columbia's logo was prominently visible in the image that Odysseus beamed to Earth. Has any other company had their corporate logo beamed down from the surface of the moon? The fabric that is a component in a lunar lander is also available as a lining for a very comfy looking winter jacket.

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