Intuitive Machines, a U.S. space company founded in 2013, has been developing a lunar lander platform for quite some time now. The Nova-C lander, funded by the NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), has changed its official launch date. The launch window, the company states, will open on the 12th of January 2024, probably making Intuitive Machines the second U.S. private company to reach the surface of the Moon, preceded only by Astrobotics, launching just a few weeks earlier.
The mission is called IM-1, and it’s the first of a series of organized lunar missions from Intuitive Machines, and for the numerous companies and state agencies that will take advantage of this opportunity to return to the lunar surface. It’s been over 30 years since the last US mission to this remote location. And for the hundreds of useful ideas and technologies maturated in those years, backed by the Artemis Program, every occasion to put them to proof counts.
In the statement published on October 27, it was stated that Nova-C will lift off from Cape Canaveral LC-39A carried on a Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket. The team has already finished building Nova-C in September, and according to Intuitive Machines’ CEO Steve Altemus: “the entire company is looking forward to our upcoming launch”.
A small lander with great flexibility
Nova-C is one of the results of the NASA CLPS funding the company received in 2018. The small-class lander is powered by a 3100N main engine called V900, running on methane and oxygen. The Lander is more than 4 meters tall, and according to Intuitive Machines, it can deliver up to 130 kg of payload to the lunar surface.
Of course, it is possible to detach payload or hosted spacecraft from the lander at any phase of the mission, from the Lunar Transfer Orbit to Low Lunar Orbit. Given that the whole Falcon 9 Rocket is used exclusively for the mission, the company states it could also host other payloads on the same Falcon second stage as rideshare, given the lander only occupies part of the available space.
IM-1 is just the first of a series of missions, with the IM-2 and IM-3 missions already planned for a later part of 2024. While the IM-1 mission has been rescheduled from November 2023 to January 2024, the company appears determined to pick up the pace in the next months, with various fundamental components of IM-2 already built and a roster of customers and companies already booked for a flight to the Lunar South Pole.
Various payload for various purposes
The companies, government agencies, and personalities involved on the IM-1 mission are various. Some have essentially scientific purposes, but others are more personal, or have a touch of spectacle that goes side by side with research.
An exciting payload is the EagleCam. Proposed by Intuitive Machines’ founder Steve Altemus, and made by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, FL, it aims to launch a remote-operated camera transmitter during the last phases of the lunar touchdown.
The camera will fall side by side with the lander with its eagle eye fixed on the spacecraft. The camera transmitter will broadcast the first third-person view of a lunar landing, while simultaneously testing an innovative electrostatic dust-removal system.
NASA is also participating in the mission with five special payloads. One of them is the Laser Retro-Reflector Array, developed by the Goddard Space Flight Center. A simple group of mirrors, able to reflect received laser light back to its source, it could be used as a precise landmark to coordinate landings of other spacecraft during the lunar night.
There’s also the Navigation Doppler Lidar from Langley Research Center, supporting the landing with precise ranging and velocity sensing during descent. Or SCALPSS, the Stereo CAmeras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies, to highlight the changes caused to the surface due to a propelled landing.
“Cultural” payloads will also be carried on the surface of the Moon: LUNAPRISE, GLL Space’s special collection of microfiche disks with engraved messages to illustrate our culture and civilizations to future memory. With the IM-1 mission new possibilities arise, and many others will take advantage of this exciting new platform to expand human ingenuity and our presence on our closest space neighbor.