SpaceX successfully launches lander aiming for moon's south pole

If all goes well, the lander will attempt to touch down next week on the moon. Credit: NASA

A robotic moon lander built by Houston-based company has been successfully launched by SpaceX from Florida on Thursday.

The Nova-C Odysseus lander took off atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 6:10am GMT.

If all goes well, the lander will attempt to touch down next week on the moon, in what would be considered the first touchdown of a US-made spacecraft on the moon in five decades.

The launch follows closely on the heels of a separate US lunar landing mission that failed in January.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Credit: AP

NASA has ramped up the development of robotic spacecraft via private partners to evaluate the lunar environment and identify key resources - such as the presence of water - before it attempts to return astronauts to the moon later this decade.

The mission had been slated to launch on Wednesday, but an issue with the temperature of propellant needed to power the spacecraft delayed the attempt by 24 hours.

The rocket fired the moon lander into Earth’s orbit, and it is expected to blaze to speeds topping 24,600 miles per hour.

After burning through its fuel, the rocket will detach from Odie, leaving the lunar lander to fly solo through space.

The robotic explorer will then immediately consult an onboard map of the stars so it can orient itself in space, pointing its solar panels toward the sun’s rays to charge its batteries.

Odie will be on an oval-shaped path around Earth, stretching as far out as 236,100 miles from home.

And about 18 hours into spaceflight, the vehicle will ignite its motor for the first time, continuing its fast-paced trip toward the lunar surface.

The moon, which orbits roughly 250,000 miles away from Earth, is expected to give the moon lander a gentle gravitational tug as the spacecraft approaches, pulling the vehicle toward its cratered surface.

It is slated to make its nail-biting touchdown attempt on February 22, aiming for a crater near the moon’s south pole.

It will be a dangerous trek. If it fails, it will join a growing list of missions that have unsuccessfully sought a lunar touchdown.

China, India and Japan are so far the only nations to have soft-landed vehicles on the moon in the 21st century.

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