With support from NASA, new mission to the Moon leaves this Wednesday – 02/12/2024 – Science

With support from NASA, new mission to the Moon leaves this Wednesday – 02/12/2024 – Science

There we go again. In the early hours of this Wednesday (14), another commercial mission to the Moon should begin – perhaps the first to make a successful landing.

The launch of IM-1, the inaugural mission of the company Intuitive Machines, from Houston (USA), will take place using the renowned SpaceX rocket, the Falcon 9. Departing from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, at 2:57 am (Brasília time), it will place the Nova-C model lunar module (named Odysseus in this mission), on a translunar trajectory.

It will be the fourth attempt by the private sector to successfully land on the Moon.

In 2019, the SpaceIL group, from Israel, almost succeeded, with a failure just a few meters from the surface. The same happened with the Japanese company ispace, and its Hakuto-R module, in 2023.

The third attempt was the most eye-catching, last month, when the American company Astrobotic had a problem with a ruptured fuel tank that prevented it from even reaching the Moon, leading the spacecraft to complete its mission in a dive into the Pacific Ocean.

What all of these missions have in common is their low cost and the search for innovations that make access to the lunar surface simpler and more frequent. This also explains the results obtained so far. They contrast with more recent state lunar landing attempts. Of the last three, promoted by Russia, India and Japan between 2023 and 2024, only the Russian one failed.

The Japanese were somewhat unhappy to see their Slim landing module land on the surface, but still with enough functionality to fulfill its mission and demonstrate high-precision landing.

The Indian Chandrayaan-3 mission brought enormous prestige to that country’s space program, by making the first descent near the lunar south pole.

Odysseus, from Intuitive Machines, will try to double this bet, descending even closer than Chandrayaan-3 to the south pole – a mere 300 km from it, in the Malapert A crater, a satellite of a larger one, called Malapert, with 69 km in diameter.

There is great ambition in exploring the lunar pole, due to the detection of water (in the form of ice or molecules attached to the soil) inside craters where sunlight never reaches. In fact, the IM-1 target is very close to one of the potential landing sites for the Artemis 3 manned mission, with which the Americans hope to resume exploring the Moon with astronauts later this decade.

The small module weighs 675 kilograms and carries six NASA payloads on board, as part of a program by the American space agency to promote commercial missions of lunar trailers, of which it would appear as just one of the customers. For transporting its instruments to the surface of the Moon, the agency paid Intuitive Machines US$118 million.

They will fly alongside other cargo dispatched by private entities, ranging from thermal covers to sculptures, passing through a camera to be ejected and photographing the landing in perspective. But everyone who has something on board knows that, as with the Astrobotic mission in January, the risk of failure is not negligible.

NASA’s instruments are made up of a radio system that will measure astronomical sources and the plasma environment in the lunar exosphere (the ultra-tenuous, practically zero atmosphere of the satellite), a retroreflector (passive instrument for measuring the distance to the Moon with a laser) , a device to measure speed and distance from the ground, a stereo camera to observe effects of the propellant plume on the ground during landing, a radio relay for location, and an available fuel gauge.

By the way, the propulsion is one of the most interesting elements of the Nova-C module: powered by liquid methane and oxygen, it brings with it two challenges: the fact that it requires an ignition to fire and also that it requires cryogenic temperatures. The most common for lunar modules is the adoption of so-called hypergolic propellants, which remain liquid at room temperature and spontaneously combust when fuel and oxidizer meet. Although they are more toxic and difficult to deal with on the ground, they are more reliable when it is necessary to restart the engine several times in space.

By exchanging them for a pair like cryogenic methane and oxygen, the Nova-C gains more power for the amount of fuel on board, but it also has a series of restrictions that require a fast mission. It happens that these propellants suffer in space the phenomenon known as “boil-off”, they gradually evaporate and escape from the tanks, and the vehicle loses fuel.

For this reason, SpaceX even had to adapt the Falcon 9 launch platform to suit Intuitive Machines and allow the lander to be refueled immediately before takeoff. Likewise, the mission needs to quickly head to the Moon and perform all of its powered maneuvers before “boil-off” becomes a problem.

With this, we will see a much faster trajectory than that adopted in other commercial missions, such as that of the Japanese ispace and the American Astrobotic, which would spend at least a month in space before landing. Odysseus should make its landing attempt on the 22nd, after reaching lunar orbit and making around a hundred laps around it.

If all goes well, IM-1 will be the first private mission to perform a soft landing on the Moon. So far only space agencies have been successful, and only those from five countries: Russia (then the Soviet Union), USA, China, India and Japan.

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