Private spacecraft could make the first US moon landing in 50 years

The Odysseus lunar lander over the near side of the moon following lunar orbit insertion. Credit: AP via Intuitive Machines.

A private lunar lander is circling the moon with the aim of putting the US back on its surface for the first time since Nasa's famed Apollo moonwalkers back in 1972.

Intuitive Machines has been striving to become the first private business to successfully pull off a lunar landing, a feat that only five countries have achieved.

It comes after a rival firm's lander missed the moon last month.

Six days after rocketing from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, the lander, named Odysseus, reached the moon on February 22.

The lander maneuvered into a low lunar orbit in preparation for an early evening touchdown.

Flight controllers monitored the action unfolding some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away from a command center at company headquarters in Houston.

The Odysseus lunar lander with the Earth in the background on February 16. Credit: AP via Intuitive Machines.

Nasa gave the company $118 million (£93 million) to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialise lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalise on it.

Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, US, China and India.

The US bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come.

The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure.

The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.

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