Intuitive Machines’ first moon lander also broke ground with safer, cheaper rocket-style propulsion


Share post:

Intuitive Machines’ first lunar lander officially lost power today after spending seven days on the moon. The lander made history for being the first American hardware to reach the lunar surface since 1972 and the first privately built spacecraft to land on the moon. But the lander, called Odysseus, will be remembered for another reason: its propulsion system.

That propulsion system, which uses a combination of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid methane, could unlock new capabilities in space and de-risk future missions by other commercial providers.

Before Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission, no lander had ever used this combination of propellants. If they sound familiar, it’s because they’re used in high-performance rocket engines, like SpaceX’s Raptor, Blue Origin’s BE-4 and Relativity Space’s Aeon R.

But landers — and most spacecraft today — use “space storable” or hypergolic propellants, like hydrazine or nitrogen tetroxide, which can be passively stored but are highly toxic. In contrast, “cryogens” are more efficient, higher energy and considerably less dangerous, but they must be actively cooled to very, very low temperatures.

This presents some unique challenges. Because the fuels must be kept so cold, they can only be stored prior to lift-off for a very short amount of time. To get around this issue, Intuitive Machines and SpaceX started fueling the Nova-C class lander’s VR900 engine (which was built by IM) just three hours before lift-off, when the rocket was on the launch pad and the spacecraft was already inside the payload fairing. This is anything but typical.

It’s so out-of-the-ordinary that SpaceX had to develop entirely new capabilities to fuel the lander, Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s VP of build and flight reliability, said during a press conference on Feb. 13. That included modifying the launch pad, the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, and adding an adapter to access the payload fairing when it was already mated to the vehicle.

The two companies performed two wet dress rehearsals prior to launch; issues with propellant loading resulted in the first launch attempt being pushed by a day, to Feb. 15. After the successful launch, Intuitive Machines’ also ran into a brief issue chilling the liquid oxygen feed line, which took longer than anticipated. Once the propellant was sufficiently cooled, flight controllers successfully fired the engine in space for the first time the following day.

Because the company was using liquid oxygen and liquid methane, which are highly efficient, they were able to take a more direct trajectory to the moon. The spacecraft only had to transit the Van Allen belt, a high-radiation zone around the Earth, once, which reduced the spacecraft’s exposure to damaging high-energy particles.

Two VR900 engines will also be used on Intuitive Machines’ much larger “Nova-D” spacecraft, to deliver 500-750 kilograms of payload to the moon. (The Nova-C lander has a payload capacity of 100 kilograms.)

The Nova-C and Nova-D landers will be far from the last spacecraft to use cryogenic propellants in space. Impulse Space’s high-energy kick stage, Helios, will use cryogens to deliver payloads directly to geostationary orbit, CEO Tom Mueller explained in an interview from January.

“People have talked about doing big kick stages with hypergols before, and I just think, you’re talking tons of propellant and the price and the cost of safety are just exorbitant,” he said. “So using very low-cost, very high-energy propellants like liquid oxygen and liquid methane is kind of like a no-brainer.”

One of the six NASA science and research payloads that Odysseus carried to the surface also directly leveraged the cryogenic propulsion system. The Radio Frequency Mass Gauge statement from the agency’s Glenn Research Center uses radio wave and antenna to measure how much propellant is available in the engine’s tanks. It is technology that could be vital for measuring spacecraft fuel levels during long-duration space missions, especially because “slosh” can make measuring liquids in microgravity a challenge.

This issue is of special importance to NASA because the agency’s Artemis missions to return humans to the lunar surface depends on spacecraft that use cryogenic propellants — chiefly SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System and Blue Origins’ Blue Moon. These missions will require transferring large amounts of cryogenic fluids from on-orbit depots to the spacecraft; while these fluids will need to be on orbit for far longer than Odysseus was in transit to the moon, the IM-1 mission is still squarely kicking down the door for cryogenic use in space.

Source link

Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

Recent posts

Related articles

Rivian targets gas-powered Ford and Toyota trucks and SUVs with $5,000 ‘electric upgrade’ discount

Rivian is offering discounts up to $5,000 on its EVs — and a year of free charging...

UnitedHealth says Change hackers stole health data on ‘substantial proportion of people in America’

Health insurance giant UnitedHealth Group has confirmed that a ransomware attack on its health tech subsidiary Change...

TechCrunch Space: Engineering the future

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. Don’t worry — we’ll be diving into the Mars Sample...

Here are the 30+ startups showcasing at HAX’s May 1 Demo Day

A few weeks back, TechCrunch ventured out to New Jersey to pay an early visit to HAX’s...

Here’s a lab-grown diamond startup that’s attracted a16z’s attention

Throughout hip-hop’s long history, jewelry has served as an important vehicle for artists to convey their ideas...

US government says security flaw in Chirp Systems’ app lets anyone remotely control smart home locks

A vulnerability in a smart access control system used in thousands of U.S. rental homes allows anyone...

Substack rival Ghost confirms it will join the fediverse in 2024

Ghost, an open-source rival to Substack’s newsletter platform, has confirmed it will this year officially join the...

Amazon ends California drone deliveries

Amazon confirmed it is ending Prime Air drone delivery operations in Lockeford, California. The Central California town...