SpaceX Postpones Launch of Intuitive Machines Nova-C Moon Lander

SpaceX Postpones Launch of Intuitive Machines Nova-C Moon Lander

Another month, another try at the moon — but not on Wednesday.

SpaceX announced the postponement on Tuesday night of the scheduled launch of a private robotic lunar lander.

The spacecraft, built by Intuitive Machines of Houston, is on top the rocket on the launchpad. Weather conditions were favorable but a technical issue led to the delay of its flight by at least a day. The next attempt will be Thursday at 1:05 a.m. Eastern time.

If all goes well then, it will set up the first American spacecraft to land softly on the moon’s surface since the Apollo 17 moon landing in 1972. It will also be the latest private effort to send a spacecraft to the moon.

The Intuitive Machines lander, named Odysseus, was scheduled to launch at 12:57 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In a post late on Tuesday on the website X, SpaceX said the temperature of methane fuel for the lander was “off-nominal.”

If the technical problem is fixed, forecasts call for favorable weather during the next launch opportunity on Thursday. There is another backup launch opportunity on Friday.

If the launch occurs this week, the landing will be on Feb. 22 near a crater named Malapert A. (Malapert A is a satellite crater of the larger Malapert crater, which is named after Charles Malapert, a 17th-century Belgian astronomer.)

Odysseus will enter orbit around the moon about 24 hours before the landing attempt.

The landing site, about 185 miles from the south pole on the near side of the moon, is relatively flat, an easier location for a spacecraft to land. No American spacecraft has ever landed at the lunar south pole, which is a focus of many space agencies and companies because it may be rich in frozen water.

Intuitive Machines calls its spacecraft design Nova-C and named this particular lander Odysseus. It is a hexagonal cylinder with six landing legs, about 14 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Intuitive Machines points out that the body of the lander is roughly the size of an old British phone booth — that is, like the Tardis in the “Doctor Who” science fiction television show.

At launch, with a full load of propellant, the lander weighs about 4,200 pounds.

NASA is the main customer for the Intuitive Machines flight; it is paying the company $118 million to deliver its payloads. NASA also spent an additional $11 million to develop and build the six instruments on the flight:

  • A laser retroreflector array to bounce back laser beams fired from Earth.

  • A LIDAR instrument to precisely measure the spacecraft’s altitude and velocity as it descends to the lunar surface.

  • A stereo camera to capture video of the plume of dust kicked up by the lander’s engines during landing.

  • A low-frequency radio receiver to measure the effects of charged particles near the lunar surface on radio signals.

  • A beacon, Lunar Node-1, to demonstrate an autonomous navigation system.

  • An instrument in the propellant tank that is to use radio waves to measure how much fuel remains in the tank.

The lander is also carrying a few other payloads, including a camera built by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida; a precursor instrument for a future moon telescope; and an art project by Jeff Koons.

On Jan. 8, Astrobotic Technology sent its Peregrine lander toward the moon. But a malfunction with its propulsion system shortly after launch prevented any possibility of landing. Ten days later, as Peregrine swung back toward Earth, it burned up in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean.

Both Odysseus and Peregrine are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. The object of the program is to use commercial companies to send experiments to the moon rather than NASA building and operating its own moon landers.

“We’ve always viewed these initial CLPS deliveries as being kind of a learning experience,” Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s science mission directorate, said during a news conference on Tuesday.

The space agency hopes this approach will be much cheaper, allowing it to send more missions more frequently as it prepares to send astronauts back to the moon as part of its Artemis program.