US heads back to the Moon with a commercial spaceship

WASHINGTON   -  A Houston-based company is set Thursday to attempt to land America’s first spaceship on the Moon in more than 50 years, as part of a new fleet of NASA-funded commercial landers intended to pave the way for astronauts to return to Earth’s celestial neighbour later this decade. If all goes well, Intuitive Machines will guide its hexagon- shaped robot Odysseus to a gentle touchdown near the lunar south pole at 2230 GMT. Flight controllers are expected to confirm landing around 15 seconds after the milestone is achieved, with the event live streamed on the company’s website. As it approaches the surface, Odysseus will shoot out an external “EagleCam” that captures images of the lander in the final seconds of its descent. A previous moon shot by another US company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate private industry has what it takes to repeat a feat last achieved by NASA during its Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University told AFP that the US was rebuilding its capacity to explore the Moon after its decades-long absence. “There’s often a prejudice that says, we did it in the past, why can’t we do it now?” said Pace, a former member of the National Space Council. “Each generation has to learn how to do things,” he added. “You have a leg up, you understand the technology, the problems and so forth. But that’s all in books. That’s not flight tests. That’s not flight experience, where you know it in your fingertips.” Odysseus launched on February 15 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and boasts a new type of supercooled liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion system that allowed it to race through space in quick time. Its destination, Malapert A, is an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the lunar south pole. NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program. Instruments include cameras to investigate how the lunar surface changes as a result of the engine plume from a spaceship, and a device to analyze clouds of charged dust particles that hang over the surface at twilight as a result of solar radiation. The rest of the cargo was paid for by Intuitive Machines’ private clients, and includes 125 stainless steel mini Moons by the artist Jeff Koons.

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