First commercial spacecraft lands on the Moon

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A commercial space flight has successfully landed on the Moon for the first time, opening a new era of private lunar exploration.

After an eight-day flight, US-based Intuitive Machines’ unmanned Odysseus lander touched down safely on the lunar surface on Thursday, close to its target, the Malapert A crater near the Moon’s south pole. 

The descent was fraught with last-minute suspense as mission control lost contact with the lander just as it reached the surface. However, roughly 15 minutes after the targeted landing time, a faint signal was finally received and mission director and chief technology officer Tim Crain announced: “Odysseus has found a new home.”

The mission marks the successful return of the US to lunar exploration for the first time in more than 50 years, after the Apollo programme ended in 1972. It is an important milestone in Nasa’s plans to send humans to the lunar south pole in 2026, relying on private companies to help cut the costs of services such as transport, navigation and communications.

Bill Nelson, Nasa administrator, declared: “The US has returned to the moon. Today for the first time . . . a commercial company, an American company has launched and led the voyage up there. This shows the power and promise of Nasa’s commercial partnerships. What a triumph!”

Nasa has said the creation of a commercially viable lunar economy will be vital to its ambition for a permanent human base on the Moon and, eventually Mars.

Thomas Zurbuchen, professor of space science at ETH Zurich who ran Nasa’s science missions until 2022, said the landing “changes the whole paradigm of planetary exploration. Until now everything has been done by governments. With companies we can do it a lot cheaper.”

Odysseus’s safe landing was greeted with elation at Intuitive’s mission control in Houston, Texas. In the last few hours the lander had to go into an extra orbit of the Moon because its laser navigation system malfunctioned and engineers were forced to use instruments from a Nasa payload onboard instead.

Nasa paid Intuitive $118mn to carry six scientific payloads, including instruments to observe space weather from the Moon and a radio beacon to aid navigation. The company was also carrying six commercial packages, including mini-sculptures by artist Jeff Koons, a camera to record the landing and a lunar archive.

An image of the moon centred on the south pole that shows the location of Malapert A

The solar-powered lander will carry out experiments near the lunar south pole and is expected to operate for about 14 days in sunlight. It is the first of three Intuitive Machines missions planned by Nasa in preparation for the agency’s Artemis missions to the lunar south pole.

The region is rich in resources such as ice water, which could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen to help sustain a permanent human presence on the Moon. India last year became the first country to land a spacecraft in the south pole region.

Intuitive’s soft landing comes just over a year after the company floated on the market through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Stephen Altemus, co-founder and chief executive, told the Financial Times that the company aimed to eventually provide a range of lunar services from communications to navigation and even power generation.

“We will have the most data about the moon, the most understanding,” he said. “You take that first step and then a whole series of unpredicted and forecasted activities [follow] from that.”

Intuitive Machines shares, which had fallen from their 2023 trading debut of $10.03 to $2.32 by the start of the year, have risen sharply in recent weeks as the mission passed milestones towards its launch on a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. On Thursday they closed at $8.28, down 11 per cent.

A lunar landing attempt by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology failed last month when problems with the spacecraft’s propulsion system resulted in a critical loss of fuel soon after its launch.

An unmanned Japanese rover touched down on the Moon in January but an upside-down landing made it difficult to generate solar power, curtailing its ability to explore the lunar surface.

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