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How Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines Aim to End America’s Moon-Landing Drought

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In a bid to revive U.S. moon landings, two private companies, Astrobotic Technology in Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines in Houston, are gearing up for historic missions more than five decades after the Apollo program concluded. This comes as part of a NASA-supported initiative to stimulate commercial moon deliveries, coinciding with the agency’s renewed focus on returning astronauts to the lunar surface.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson highlighted the significance of these missions, describing these private companies as “scouts going to the moon ahead of us.” Astrobotic Technology is set to launch its lander on Monday, utilizing United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Meanwhile, Intuitive Machines plans to launch its lander in mid-February, hitching a ride with SpaceX.

Japan is also part of the moon-landing race, with an attempt scheduled in two weeks. The Japanese Space Agency’s lander, accompanied by two toy-size rovers, is already en route, having shared a September launch with an X-ray telescope. Success in this endeavor would mark Japan as the fifth country to achieve a lunar landing.

Landing on the moon poses unique challenges, primarily due to the lack of atmosphere. Descending safely requires navigating treacherous terrain using thrusters, as parachutes are ineffective. Previous attempts by other countries, including Japan, Russia, and Israel, have faced setbacks, with some missions ending in crashes.

The last U.S. moon landing occurred in December 1972, with Apollo 17, and since then, only unmanned lunar satellites have been deployed. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are not only aiming to end this prolonged absence but are also competing to become the first private entities to successfully land on the moon.

Despite starting later, Intuitive Machines has a more direct trajectory and aims to land within a week of liftoff. In contrast, Astrobotic’s mission involves a longer journey, with an anticipated landing date of February 23. Rocket delays could impact the timeline, providing an opportunity for either company to achieve the historic feat.

Both companies received nearly $80 million each in 2019 under a NASA program to develop lunar delivery services. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, standing at 6 feet tall, will carry 20 research packages for seven countries, including NASA. Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, at 14 feet tall, will deliver five experiments for NASA, targeting the moon’s south polar region.

The significance of landing near the moon’s south pole lies in the belief that permanently shadowed craters in this area may contain frozen water, a crucial resource for potential future missions. NASA’s Artemis program aims to land the first astronauts at the moon’s south pole, with a tentative launch date in 2025 or later.

Both companies have committed to subsequent missions to the moon’s south pole. Astrobotics will transport NASA’s Viper rover, while Intuitive Machines plans to deliver an ice drill for NASA. The challenges of landing in the rocky and craggy terrain of the South Pole add complexity to these missions.

As these private companies embark on these historic moon-landing endeavors, the geopolitical landscape, especially China’s lunar exploration efforts, adds layer of significance to the race. While Astrobotic’s lander carries symbolic items representing Pittsburgh, Intuitive Machines views the race as a reflection of global geopolitics.

The competition to land on the moon not only marks a technological milestone but also sets the stage for future lunar exploration, with the potential for resource utilization and sustained human presence on the lunar surface.

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