Odysseus Moon Lander Sends Photos Home Before Spacecraft Likely Dies
Odysseus Moon Lander Sends Photos Home Before Spacecraft Likely Dies

Odysseus, the American robotic spacecraft that landed on the moon last week, is likely to die in the next day or so.

Communications with the toppled lander remain limited and will end when sunlight is no longer shining on the solar panels, Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based company that built and operates Odysseus, said on Monday morning.

The company also released images that the spacecraft took as it descended, but none yet from the surface.

Odysseus is the first American spacecraft to land on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, and the first private one ever to successfully set down there in one piece. However, during the landing on Thursday evening, the lander, about 14 feet tall, appears to have been traveling faster than planned and ended up tipped over on its side.

As a result, its antennas are not pointed back at Earth, greatly slowing the rate that data can be sent back. While some of the solar panels of Odysseus were initially bathed in sunlight, they will soon be in shadow as the sun moves across the sky. That will starve the spacecraft of energy, and its batteries will drain.

Odysseus is not designed to survive the two weeks of lunar night that will follow, with temperatures dropping below minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Flight controllers intend to collect data until the lander’s solar panels are no longer exposed to light,” Intuitive Machines posted on X. “Based on Earth and Moon positioning, we believe flight controllers will continue to communicate with Odysseus until Tuesday morning.”

Flight controllers also now know exactly where Odysseus sits on the moon. On Saturday, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took a picture as it passed over the landing site, revealing a speck that was not there in an earlier image that the orbiter had taken of the area.

Odysseus landed within about a mile of its target landing site — with higher precision than most earlier landers. That feat was even more impressive given that engineers at Intuitive Machines had to patch the spacecraft’s software to bypass nonfunctioning lasers that were supposed to track the spacecraft’s altitude.

Intuitive Machines said that Odysseus was also able to detect nine safe landing sites within the south pole region, information that could prove useful for future missions as NASA and other space agencies look to explore that region. Frozen water in the shadows of craters there could one day provide crucial resources for astronauts.

As Odysseus fades, another lunar lander unexpectedly popped back to life. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, reported on Monday that its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, or SLIM, had revived. SLIM successfully landed on the moon in January. The failure of one of its two engines caused it to move sideways at landing, and, like Odysseus, tipped over into an unexpected orientation with its solar panels in shadow.

SLIM did come to life a few days later when sunlight hit some of the panels, but it went back to sleep as lunar night descended.

Like Odysseus, SLIM was not designed for the frigid cold.

But with the sun back in the sky, SLIM’s solar panels generated enough energy to charge its batteries and get back in touch with Earth. The temperatures were so high that communications were ended soon after, JAXA said.

However, JAXA said it planned to resume SLIM’s scientific studies of the surrounding terrain once temperatures fall.

Odysseus too might wake again after the sun rises at its landing site in March.

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