Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines (IM) is preparing for a historic lunar landing in early 2023. The company’s Nova-C lander is ready to lift off and deliver scientific payloads to the moon’s surface on IM’s first of three planned missions under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
Background on Intuitive Machines and the CLPS Program
Founded in 2013, Intuitive Machines is a leader in developing space products and services to advance the commercial space economy. The company has worked extensively on precision landing systems and modular space vehicles.
In 2019, NASA selected Intuitive Machines as one of many U.S. companies to deliver payloads to the moon through the CLPS program. The program contracts private companies to transport scientific instruments, technology demonstrations, and more to explore the lunar surface. Intuitive Machines secured $77.5 million in NASA task orders to carry out three lunar missions, starting with IM-1 in early 2023.
Highlights of the Upcoming IM-1 Mission
The initial Intuitive Machines lunar landing mission, IM-1, will be the first of its kind for a private company. Slated to launch in late February onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, IM-1 carries 5 NASA and 2 commercial payloads onboard its Nova-C lander:
- NASA’s Lunar Vertex Radio Science Experiment (RAE) – Will study the anomalous warming of Mercury’s nightside atmosphere, utilizing the lander itself as a scientific instrument
- NASA’s Navigator Global Positioning System (GPS) – CubeSat that will test autonomous navigation of lunar orbits and landings for future missions
- NASA’s Retroreflector Targeting Sensors (RETS) – Will provide targeting information to improve precision landing and navigation capabilities for future missions
- NASA’s Stereo CAMeras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies (SCALPSS) – Designed to capture video and still imagery of the Nova-C lander as it descends and lands on the moon
- NASA’s Regolith Adherence Characterization (RAC) Payload – Will study how lunar regolith sticks to a range of materials exposed to the Moon’s environment during landing and surface operations
- Astrobotic Technology’s GridSphere Hosted Payload – A camera to capture a 360 degree perspective on the lunar surface
- Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 Service Module – Will demonstrate avionics and sensors designed for precise landing capability plus a sample return in future missions
The Nova-C lander and its payloads will touch down in Oceanus Procellarum on the lunar nearside. The mission intends to have a surface operation duration of at least 10 days and over 50 miles of traverse via hopping across the moon’s surface. This inaugural flight will pave the way for Intuitive Machine’s second (IM-2) and third (IM-3) lunar delivery missions, expanding opportunities for commerce and research on the moon.
|Nova-C Lander Specs
|Height: 17 ft
|Launch: February 2023
|Width: 13 ft
|Launch Site: Cape Canaveral, FL
Landing Site Coordinates: 310°E, 41°N | |Landing Site: Oceanus Procellarum|
|Cruise Duration: About 4 months| |Surface Mission Duration: 14+ days|
|Propulsion: Hypergolic bipropellant| |Traverse Range: 50+ miles |
Significance of Commercializing Low-Lunar Orbit Transportation
Beyond achieving the milestone of the first private lunar landing, the success of the IM-1 mission will demonstrate expanding commercial capabilities for accessing the moon. Companies like Intuitive Machines have invested significant funds and engineering efforts towards innovating lower-cost lunar landing systems. Their work reflects the immense business potential in providing commercial services related to lunar transportation and deliveries.
With IM-1 on the horizon using a launch vehicle from SpaceX, another space industry heavyweight, private companies are poised to transform operations in low-lunar orbit in the years ahead. Cost barriers that previously hindered growth in areas like lunar mining, infrastructure development, tourism, and expanded research are coming down. Intuitive Machines estimates that their CLPS program transportation services have dropped costs by around 90% compared to government pricing in the past.
The moon presents rich opportunities for space commerce that are nearer-term versus human missions to Mars. As firms like Intuitive Machines pioneer commercially-contracted lunar lander technologies, they enable both private sector and public sector customers to access the moon. This drives progress across scientific research and economic expansion objectives for sustainable lunar activity this decade.
Outlook Post IM-1: More Milestones in Store for Intuitive Machines
The IM-1 mission is the prelude for Intuitive Machines’ subsequent CLPS flights to establish even greater capabilities. IM-2, slated to launch in late 2024, will carry an enclosed payload module with capacity for larger instruments versus IM-1’s external exposed payloads. It will also demonstrate precision landing within 328 ft of a specified location.
IM-3, expected to launch in late 2025, aims to achieve the first lunar sample return by a private spacecraft. In addition, IM-3 intends to test descent diversion capability plus deploy a lunar hopper that can reposition itself across distances up to 1.5 miles.
Through its CLPS program contract, NASA continues to be an anchor customer for Intuitive Machines. However, the company is also marketing its lunar services to other commercial players. Its Nova-C lander has capacity for 100 kg of customer payloads per mission beyond what it carries for NASA. As more private sector customers leverage Intuitive Machines for lunar transportation and delivery needs, it fortifies a framework for expanded business activity on and around the moon.
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