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Legless lunar lander looks like lopsided loss

Tipped on its side, the lander's functionality has been severely compromised.

Tipped on its side, the lander's functionality has been severely compromised. Photo: AAP

A private US lunar lander has tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday’s touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said on Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface,” falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over,” he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers’ ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 4.3m lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus – the first US lander in more than 50 years – is thought to be within a few kilometres of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 300km from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander’s location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

Nova-C lander

The orbiter will be trying to get visual confirmation of the lander’s plight. Photo: AAP

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus’ mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $US118 million ($A180 million) for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

NASA to the rescue

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander’s navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander’s orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system’s activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon on Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA’s laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander – nine or 10 days at most – before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA’s commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the US had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA’s famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA’s new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo’s mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

-AAP

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