Simple Error Could Have Resulted in Intuitive Machines Mission Failure

On Feb. 22, 2024, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander captures a wide field of view image of Schomberger crater on the Moon approximately 125 miles (200 km) uprange from the intended landing site, at approximately 6 miles (10 km) altitude.. Image credit: Intuitive Machines

At this stage of the Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission, there is good reason for the company and NASA to celebrate. The Odysseus descent and landing was mostly successful. The news that the spacecraft tipped over and possibly broke a “leg” though does take some shine off the exuberance.

However, what was barely discussed at the almost hour and a half news conference Friday was the simple human error that could have resulted in mission failure. For MDA though, it means their lunar landing sensor, a critical component for a successful descent and landing wasn’t even used.

Just released image of Odysseus "pitched over" on the surface of the moon. Image credit. Intuitive Machines.
Just released image of Odysseus “pitched over” on the surface of the moon. Image credit. Intuitive Machines.

Odysseus Getting Power, Collecting Data

Intuitive Machines believes at this stage that Odysseus, called Ody by mission control, is on its side resting on a lunar rock. It was a soft landing but as the lander touched down it was still moving slightly laterally and “caught” a landing leg lightly and it is believed it then slowly tipped over and is resting on a lunar rock. The good news is that even in this position Odysseus is getting the sunlight it needs to power the lander. As well, NASA’s payloads are oriented such that they are functioning and gathering data.

Because of the orientation of the lander, Intuitive Machines is working towards establishing better communications as its antenna are not optimally oriented. This is one of the reasons why we have not seen images from the lander on the surface of the Moon as yet.

The Switch

During the news conference, and after the panel had provided their opening remarks, reporters questions where then answered. One reporter, Ken Chang of the New York Times asked a multipart question including why the onboard laser sensor didn’t function. Steve Altemus, chief executive officer and co-founder of Intuitive Machines answered the questions.

He stated that prior to the landing, and while the spacecraft was in lunar orbit, Intuitive Machines was having some difficulty with spacecraft orbit determination. As a result they decided to turn on the MDA built laser sensor to “ping” the surface. Unfortunately the laser didn’t “fire.” What they discovered was that the “safety enable switch,” an electronic switch was not disabled. The laser was not an eye safe laser, hence the need to enable the safety. Prior to launch the safety should have been disabled. Altemus said there was no way for mission control to flip the switch in orbit so the laser could be used. This meant that for this mission MDA’s technology couldn’t be used. This could have resulted in mission failure if not for an experimental NASA technology instrument onboard.

Intuitive Machines and NASA troubleshooted the problem in an ingenious way. An experimental NASA payload, the Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) guidance system, which was going to conduct a variety of tests to try and prove out their systems ahead of future use, was pressed into service.

Intuitive Machines and NASA had to write new software code, test it, upload it to the spacecraft, have it work seamlessly with NASA’s NDL payload and work right away. And it did, which was quite an accomplishment. Hence the exuberance at the news conference.

Images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team confirmed Odysseus completed its landing at 80.13°S and 1.44°E at a 2579 m elevation. After traveling more than 600,000 miles, Odysseus landed within 1.5 km of its intended Malapert A landing site, using a contingent laser range-finding system patched hours before landing. Image credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University. 4/5 (26FEB2024 0745 CST).

For MDA, they became a spectator on this mission. The good news though is that there was nothing wrong with their technology and the same laser landing sensor will be used on the next Intuitive Machines mission, IM-2.

I think it is safe to say that prior to the next launch the procedure will have changed and the laser landing sensor will be ready for use.

Feb. 26, 2024, 7:32 am EST – Edited to clarify the type of switch which needed to be disabled.
Feb. 26, 2024, 8:50 am EST – Just released images added.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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