Intuitive Machines targets launch to the Moon in mid-January

The completed Nova-C lander for the IM-1 mission is photographed in mid-October at Intuitive Machines’ facilities in Houston, Texas, ahead of it being shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: Intuitive Machines

The first lunar lander aiming for a touchdown at the Moon’s south pole has a new launch date. Intuitive Machines said Friday it is targeting the launch of its Nova-C lander on the IM-1 mission for no earlier than January 12, 2024.

Trent Martin, the Vice President of Lunar Access at Intuitive Machines, told Spaceflight Now it’s a good feeling to finally reach this point.

“We began this journey on IM-1 back in 2019. Hoping to launch a little bit earlier. We ran into some technical difficulties and solving those problems means getting to this point, where you have a vehicle and it’s ready to go launch, make it even more exciting because you know you solved some problems, some really technical, difficult problems,” said Martin, who was attending the von Braun Space Exploration Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

“We’re ready and the vehicle’s tested and checked out. Everything we need to do is wrapped up and ready to go. Just getting ready to ship it down to the Cape.”

Martin said the Nova-C lander will be transported from the company’s facilities in Houston, Texas, down to Florida in late November for final pre-launch processing.

The IM-1 mission is bound for the Moon’s South Pole and is targeting a landing site near the Malapert A crater, which is located at 80.4 degrees south and was chosen for its generally flat landscape.

A rendering of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander on the Moon’s surface. Image: Intuitive Machines

That landing site is helping to drive both the launch date and the length of the launch window, Martin said. In general, he said each month has a window around three to six days. They would land around five to seven days after launching from the Cape.

For IM-1, Martin said Jan. 12 is the start of the planned launch window that month and they are working alongside their launch partner, SpaceX, to further refine the full scope of that. Each day of the launch window holds an instantaneous launch opportunity.

“It is a really hard orbital dynamics problem that requires not only my GNC (guidance, navigation and control) team, but also my landing team because we’re looking at the trajectories, we’re looking at the position of the Moon relative to the Earth at launch and then we’re looking at what is the position of the Sun and the Earth at landing on the Moon,” Martin said. “So, you want to make sure that we have sunlight so we can power our systems and make sure we have communication back to the Earth.”

Martin said the first couple of missions to the Moon for them will use direct-to-Earth transmissions for their communications.

Part of NASA’s commercial lunar efforts

The IM-1 mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, a series of indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts that have a total maximum value of $2.6 billion over a 10-year period. The undertaking was announced back in April 2018 with the first task orders issued on March 26, 2019, to nine companies.

Intuitive Machines has been awarded three missions to date The lander for the IM-1 mission carries with it six payloads for NASA:

  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1)
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS)
  • Radio-wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the photo Electron Sheath (ROLSES)
  • Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL)
  • Radio Frequency Mass Gauge (RFMG)
  • Laser Retroreflector (LRA)

NASA described its suite of payloads as having a “focus on plume-surface interactions, space weather/lunar surface interactions, radio astronomy, precision landing technologies, and a communication and navigation node for future autonomous navigation technologies.”

“In some cases, on the NASA payloads, we have a couple of payloads that are operational during the landing,” Martin said. “And for those payloads, we’re gathering that data and we’ll send it back once we land on the Moon.”

A graphical overview of the destination of the various missions within NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. Image: NASA

There are also a series of commercial payloads on board the lander, including one of Martin’s favorites: a camera system dubbed “EagleCam,” which was developed by students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Intuitive Machines’ founder, Steve Altemus, issued a challenge to build the camera during a campus visit in 2019.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam Payload Flat Sat testing performed at Intuitive Machines’ Houston Headquarters. Image: Intuitive Machines

The camera is designed to capture a third-person perspective of the Nova-C lander touching down on the Moon’s surface.

“As we’re coming down, we’ll be about 30 meters above the surface, we fire EagleCam off with a CubeSat deployer and the camera itself is actually multiple cameras, four cameras. So as this 1U CubeSat tumbles, it’s taking video imagery as it falls to the surface of the Moon,” Martin said. “From that, within a day or two, we’ll have video of us landing on the Moon. So, I’m super excited for that one.”

Pathway to the Moon

Martin said it will take roughly five to seven days after launch for the lander to get to the Moon and then about a day before touching down on the surface, although the timeline will continue to be refined as launch day approaches.

Operations will be run out of Intuitive Machine’s “Nova Control” center at the company’s headquarters in Houston.

A view inside the Nova Control center at Intuitive Machines’ headquarters in Houston, Texas. Image: Intuitive Machines

About 90 seconds after spacecraft separation from the Falcon 9’s second stage, the lander will be powered on and begin to acquire telemetry and other data about the health of the spacecraft. Martin said within a few hours of that time, they will also conduct an initial checkout of the engine with a test firing.

“We then do multiple trajectory burns to slightly update our trajectory on the way to the Moon,” Martin said.

The final trajectory burn will put them in orbit about 100 kilometers above the Moon’s surface where they will remain for about 24 hours as they plan their powered descent down to the ground, which lasts about 15 minutes.

The lander is intended to be in orbit around the Moon for roughly 24 hours since they have a cryogenic system. The longer they stay in orbit, the warmer the propellants become.

A rendering of the Nova-C lander for the IM-1 mission making its powered descent to the Moon’s surface. Image: Intuitive Machines

“Once we begin that burn, we do not turn off the rocket engine. It stays lit the entire time all the way to the surface. We do have the ability to adjust the thrust on our vehicle, so we can actually throttle down from our 100 percent burn down to almost 20-25 percent of the overall thrust,” Martin said.

While they do have a target landing site in mind, there are backups and they will aim for the safest one for the lander. After touchdown, they will vent off remaining fuel before beginning other operations.

The duration of the mission will run between six and 14 days, depending on where they land, and will be in operation 24-hours a day until it goes dark during lunar nighttime.

“When it goes dark, we fully intend, on these first missions, we will definitely lose power to the spacecraft and because of that, it is very likely that it won’t turn back on,” Martin said. “We will attempt to turn it back on after the first night, but if it doesn’t come back on, our goal is to complete all of our science objectives during the first [lunar] day.”

Moon history repeats itself

While SpaceX was able to use its launch pad at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for ispace’s Moon-bound lander, Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C lander needs to launch from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The special accommodations are because the IM-1 lander uses a propellant mix of liquid oxygen and liquid methane and needs to be fueled at the launch pad in the run-up to launch.

But to do that, they need to have access to the payload, which is where the crew and cargo access tower comes into play. Another such tower is in the works at SLC-40, but it won’t be fully operational in time for this mission.

“We actually do a wet dress rehearsal several days before the launch. So we will actually do a full fuel of our vehicle to ensure we have the timeline down,” Martin said. “We want to fuel as late as possible. SpaceX has been very accommodating and they’re providing us a service that gives us liquid oxygen, liquid methane. They’ll fill up until the very last minute, so that we’re as full as possible and we have the highest chance of success at landing on the Moon.”

The significance of launching their mission to the Moon from the same pad used during the Apollo era is also not lost on Martin or his team.

“39A is Apollo 11. Come on, you can’t beat that! You’ve got Apollo, you’ve got Space Shuttle. I launched… payloads that I flew on Space Shuttle off of that. It’s kind of coming home for me,” Martin said. “It’s the future with Artemis and CLPS and it’s the past with Apollo — all in a culmination of two new space companies with SpaceX and Intuitive Machines launching off an Apollo pad.”

With Martin’s decades long experience both in the government and private space sectors, he’s seen numerous payloads head up to space. But he said it doesn’t diminish the feeling he gets whenever it gets down to launch time.

“When it gets there and it’s actually at the pad, and it’s rolled up and you can see it, it’s like watching ‘The Right Stuff.’ It’s like watching any of the space movies,” Martin said. “You almost feel the music, the same music that they play in Hollywood. You like feel it in your soul as you’re watching your spacecraft put on board a launch vehicle knowing that the next destination, in this case, the next destination is the Moon. In our case, landing at the South Pole of the Moon.”

While the historical parallels are enticing, Martin said they’re also not losing sight of the daunting challenge that landing safely on the Moon presents. He said surmounting those challenges will be the key to opening up a successful Earth-Moon economy.

“You plan for years and you develop hardware for years and software for years that you think will be exactly what you need, only to find it’s not exactly what you need. And so, those lessons that we’re going to learn on this first mission will apply to IM-2 and to IM-3,” Martin said. “I’m sure we will learn something that will change the way we operate the next vehicle, that will change the way build a piece of technology that we have in the next vehicle.”

“Hopefully we don’t have something that leads to a catastrophic failure, but it’s possible, right? It’s a risky business that we’re in. We did our best to minimize the risk as best possible, but half the missions to the Moon have failed, even from the sovereign nations,” Martin added. “The fact that the Russians just tried just a few months ago and failed, tells you that it is hard.”

Martin said as they’ve gone along, they’ve looked at the missions that succeeded in landing on the Moon, but also in particular the ones that failed. He said it’s key to understand why those failed and learn from the mistakes of those who came before them.

“We’re excited to go try these shots on goal and our hope is that we’re Michael Jordan — we hit every one — but there is risk involved in the space business.”