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After a hiatus of more than 50 years, the United States has once again landed on the moon with the message, "Welcome back!"
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After a hiatus of more than 50 years, the United States has once again landed on the moon with the message, “Welcome back!”

After over 50 years, the United States has successfully landed on the lunar surface again with the help of a privately-made spacecraft called Odysseus. The spacecraft completed a tense 73-minute descent from orbit and landed near the south pole of the moon.

As Nasa celebrated a major achievement, there is currently no update on the condition or status of the lander, only that it successfully landed at its designated location, crater Malapert A.

However, Intuitive Machines, the Texas-based company responsible for constructing the initial commercial spacecraft to successfully land on the moon, reported that the craft was “in an upright position and beginning to transmit data.”

Mission managers on X reported that they were in the process of transferring the initial images captured on the lunar surface.

On Thursday, there was a “soft landing” that had a 80% chance of success according to the company’s founder, Steve Altemus. This was an effort to begin a new phase of lunar exploration as Nasa aims for a mission in late 2026 to return humans to the moon.

“Altemus greeted the team with a warm welcome when they finally confirmed touchdown on the moon at 5:23pm. Odysseus had been out of contact for about 10 minutes during this time.”

This marked the initial occasion that a US-made spacecraft had touched down on the moon after Nasa’s last manned trip, the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. It also marked the first trip by a commercial spacecraft following the previous month’s malfunction of Peregrine One, a joint venture between Nasa and a private company, Astrobotic.

“Today marks the historic return of the United States to the moon after more than 50 years. In a significant milestone for human history, an American commercial company successfully launched and conducted the journey to the moon,” stated Bill Nelson, the administrator of Nasa.

Scientists celebrate as the lander touches down on the moon.

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“What a triumph. Odysseus has taken the moon. This feat is a giant leap forward for all of humanity.”

There is no footage available of Odysseus’s independent descent, which gradually decreased to a speed of 2.2 miles per hour when it reached 33 feet from the ground. However, a camera created by students from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida was programmed to capture images during the descent right before landing. Nasa also had cameras in place to photograph the surface from the spacecraft.

The Nova-C lander, also known as “Odie” by Intuitive Machines staff, is a hexagonal and six-legged spacecraft measuring 14ft (4.3 metres). It is a part of Nasa’s commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) program, where the agency grants contracts to private companies to assist the Artemis program.

NASA provided $118 million for the launch, while Intuitive Machines added an additional $130 million. The launch is scheduled for February 15 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, using a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk.

The IM-1 mission, similar to the unsuccessful Peregrine project, is transporting scientific tools to collect information about the moon’s surroundings, particularly in the selected rocky area where NASA’s manned Artemis III mission is scheduled to land in two years.

Nelson describes the area as being full of craters, making it dangerous. However, it was selected due to its potential abundance of frozen water, which is necessary for supporting a permanent lunar base and future human expeditions to Mars.

Last year, scientists reported that they hypothesized the presence of small glass beads scattered on the moon’s surface which may hold “billions of tonnes of water” that could be utilized in upcoming expeditions.

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Nelson stated to CNN on Thursday that the potential rewards outweigh the risks, as they hope to confirm the presence of abundant water. This would provide a valuable source of rocket fuel, specifically hydrogen and oxygen, and potentially allow for a gas station to be established on the moon’s south pole.

The intended lifespan of the lander, which is powered by solar energy, is limited to seven days due to its location approximately 186 miles from the moon’s south pole. This is because it will eventually enter Earth’s shadow. However, Nasa is optimistic that this timeframe will suffice for studying the soil’s response to the landing impact.

Additional tools will be utilized to study the impact of space weather on the moon’s surface. A system of markers will also be set up for the purposes of communication and navigation.

Nelson stated that Odysseus, which is propelled by Intuitive Machines, was launched into space on a SpaceX rocket. The spacecraft contains numerous NASA scientific tools and symbolizes the pursuit of new discoveries in science, advancements in technology, and the United States’ dominance in space exploration.

Lunar lander with Earth in backgroundView image in fullscreen

The US is utilizing Artemis, a program designed to return to the moon and eventually conduct crewed missions to Mars in the next 20 years. This initiative aims to maintain a lead over Russia and China, who are also planning their own lunar landing missions.

The United States is the only country to have successfully landed astronauts on the moon, with six Apollo missions taking place between 1969 and 1972. Additionally, five other countries have sent unmanned spacecraft to the moon. Japan recently joined the United States, Russia, China, and India in this achievement when its Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon (Slim) successfully landed on the moon last month after a three-month journey.

Later this year, two additional Intuitive Machines launches are planned. These include an ice drill designed to obtain materials for rocket fuel, as well as a Nova-C lander carrying a Nasa rover and four small robots that will investigate surface conditions.

  • This article was updated on February 22, 2024. A previous version incorrectly credited Intuitive Machines mission director Tim Crain with the quote “Welcome to the moon.”

Source: theguardian.com