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Private U.S. moon lander still works, for now

Craft broke a leg upon landing near moon’s south pole

By MARCIA DUNN, Associated Press
Published: February 28, 2024, 8:11pm

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The first private U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon broke a leg at touchdown before falling over and had just a few hours of power left before its anticipated premature shutdown Wednesday night.

Intuitive Machines, the company that built the lander, released new photos Wednesday, six days after the landing, that showed at least one broken leg on the six-legged spacecraft. The lander came in too fast, skidded and tumbled over as it touched down near the moon’s south pole last Thursday, hampering communications and power. It was supposed to operate for at least a week.

CEO Steve Altemus said the lander, named Odysseus, was still generating solar power even though it was on its side. Later Wednesday, he said, flight controllers would “tuck Odie in for the cold night of the moon” so in three weeks, once lunar night lifts, they can try to regain contact.

Mission director Tim Crain said it’s uncertain if Odysseus will wake up. The extreme cold of the lunar night could crack the electronics and kill the batteries.

A Wednesday night shutdown would represent an early end for the first U.S. moon landing in more than 50 years and only the second mission under NASA’s commercial program for lunar deliveries. But it far outpaced a rival’s failed effort last month; that lander had a fuel leak and came crashing back to Earth.

Because of a last-minute switch from the lander’s inactive navigation system to NASA’s experimental guidance lasers on board, Odysseus missed its desired flat terrain by 1 mile and ended up at a higher elevation than anticipated.

As a result, the 14-foot lander was descending too fast and hit harder than the legs could tolerate, according to Altemus.