Intuitive Machines’ first lunar lander additionally broke new floor with safer, cheaper rocket-like propulsion


Intuitive machines‘first lunar lander formally misplaced energy at this time after spending seven days on the moon. The lander made historical past as the primary U.S. {hardware} to achieve the lunar floor since 1972 and the primary privately constructed spacecraft to land on the Moon. However the lander, named Odysseus, can be remembered for one more cause: its propulsion system.

This propulsion system, which makes use of a mixture of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid methane, might unlock new capabilities in house and cut back the dangers of future missions from different business suppliers.

Earlier than Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission, no lander had ever used this mixture of thrusters. If they give the impression of being acquainted, that is as a result of they’re utilized in high-performance rocket engines, like SpaceX’s Raptor, Blue Origin’s BE-4, and Relativity House’s Aeon R.

However landers – and most spacecraft at this time – use “space-storable” or hypergolic propellants, like hydrazine or nitrogen tetroxide, which will be saved passively however are extremely poisonous. In distinction, “cryogens” are extra environment friendly, extra energetic, and significantly much less harmful, however they should be actively cooled to very, very low temperatures.

This presents distinctive challenges. As a result of fuels should be saved very chilly, they’ll solely be saved earlier than takeoff for a really quick time. To get round this drawback, Intuitive Machines and SpaceX started powering the VR900 engine of the Nova-C-class lander (constructed by IM) simply three hours earlier than liftoff, whereas the rocket was on the launch pad and the spacecraft was already contained in the payload fairing. That is something however typical.

It is so uncommon that SpaceX needed to develop totally new capabilities to energy the lander, mentioned Invoice Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vp of building and flight reliability, throughout a press convention on February 13 . the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, and including an adapter to entry the payload fairing when already mated to the automobile.

Each firms accomplished two moist costume rehearsals earlier than launch; Propellant loading issues triggered the primary launch try and be postponed by at some point, to February 15. After profitable launch, Intuitive Machines additionally skilled a short subject cooling the liquid oxygen provide line, which took longer than anticipated. As soon as the propellant cooled sufficiently, flight controllers efficiently fired the engine in house for the primary time the subsequent day.

As a result of the corporate used liquid oxygen and liquid methane, that are very environment friendly, it was capable of take a extra direct path to the moon. The spacecraft solely needed to cross by means of the Van Allen Belt, a high-radiation zone round Earth, as soon as, which diminished the spacecraft’s publicity to dangerous high-energy particles.

Two VR900 engines will even be used on Intuitive Machines’ a lot bigger “Nova-D” spacecraft, to ship 500 to 750 kilograms of payload to the Moon. (The Nova-C lander has a payload capability of 100 kilograms.)

The Nova-C and Nova-D landers can be removed from the final spacecraft to make use of cryogenic thrusters in house. Impulse house excessive vitality kick scene, Helios, will use cryogens to ship payloads immediately into geostationary orbit, CEO Tom Mueller defined in a January interview.

“Individuals have already talked about doing large steps with hypergols, and I simply suppose you are speaking about tons of propellant and the value and the price of security is simply exorbitant,” he mentioned. “So utilizing very low value, very excessive vitality propellants like liquid oxygen and liquid methane is form of a no brainer.”

One of many six NASA science and analysis payloads that Odysseus carried to the floor additionally immediately exploited the cryogenic propulsion system. The company’s Glenn Analysis Heart’s Radio Frequency Mass Gauge Assertion makes use of radio waves and an antenna to measure the quantity of propellant out there within the engine’s tanks. This know-how may very well be very important for measuring spacecraft gasoline ranges throughout long-duration house missions, significantly as a result of “slosh” could make measuring liquids troublesome in microgravity.

This query is of specific significance to NASA as a result of the company’s Artemis missions to return people to the lunar floor rely upon spacecraft utilizing cryogenic propellants – primarily SpaceX’s Starship Human Touchdown System and Blue Origins’ Blue Moon. . These missions would require the switch of huge portions of cryogenic fluids from orbiting depots to the spacecraft; Though these fluids must stay in orbit for much longer than Ulysses was in transit to the Moon, the IM-1 mission nonetheless opens the door to cryogenic use in house.


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