Intuitive Machines’ first lunar lander officially lost power today after spending seven days on the moon. The lander made historical past for being the primary American {hardware} to succeed in the lunar floor since 1972 and the primary privately constructed spacecraft to land on the moon. However the lander, referred to as Odysseus, might be remembered for an additional cause: its propulsion system.

That propulsion system, which makes use of a mixture of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid methane, may unlock new capabilities in area and de-risk future missions by different business suppliers.

Earlier than Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission, no lander had ever used this mix of propellants. In the event that they sound acquainted, it’s as a result of they’re utilized in high-performance rocket engines, like SpaceX’s Raptor, Blue Origin’s BE-4 and Relativity House’s Aeon R.

However landers — and most spacecraft in the present day — use “area storable” or hypergolic propellants, like hydrazine or nitrogen tetroxide, which could be passively saved however are extremely poisonous. In distinction, “cryogens” are extra environment friendly, greater vitality and significantly much less harmful, however they have to be actively cooled to very, very low temperatures.

This presents some distinctive challenges. As a result of the fuels have to be stored so chilly, they will solely be saved previous to lift-off for a really quick period of time. To get round this concern, Intuitive Machines and SpaceX began fueling the Nova-C class lander’s VR900 engine (which was constructed by IM) simply three hours earlier than lift-off, when the rocket was on the launch pad and the spacecraft was already contained in the payload fairing. That is something however typical.

It’s so out-of-the-ordinary that SpaceX needed to develop totally new capabilities to gas the lander, Invoice Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s VP of construct and flight reliability, stated throughout a press convention on February 13. That included modifying the launch pad and the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and including an adapter to entry the payload fairing when it was already mated to the automobile.

The 2 firms carried out two moist gown rehearsals previous to launch; points with propellant loading resulted within the first launch try being pushed by a day, to February 15. After the profitable launch, Intuitive Machines additionally bumped into a short concern chilling the liquid oxygen feed line, which took longer than anticipated. As soon as the propellant was sufficiently cooled, flight controllers efficiently fired the engine in area for the primary time the next day.

As a result of the corporate was utilizing liquid oxygen and liquid methane, that are extremely environment friendly, they have been in a position to take a extra direct trajectory to the moon. The spacecraft solely needed to transit the Van Allen belt, a high-radiation zone across the Earth, as soon as, which diminished the spacecraft’s publicity to damaging high-energy particles.

Two VR900 engines may even be used on Intuitive Machines’ a lot bigger “Nova-D” spacecraft, to ship 500-750 kilograms of payload to the moon. (The Nova-C lander has a payload capability of 100 kilograms.)

The Nova-C and Nova-D landers might be removed from the final spacecraft to make use of cryogenic propellants in area. Impulse House’s high-energy kick stage, Helios, will use cryogens to ship payloads on to geostationary orbit, CEO Tom Mueller defined in an interview from January.

“Individuals have talked about doing large kick phases with hypergols earlier than, and I simply assume, you’re speaking tons of propellant and the value and the price of security are simply exorbitant,” he stated. “So utilizing very low-cost, very high-energy propellants like liquid oxygen and liquid methane is type of like a no brainer.”

One of many six NASA science and analysis payloads that Odysseus carried to the floor additionally instantly leveraged the cryogenic propulsion system. The Radio Frequency Mass Gauge assertion from the company’s Glenn Analysis Middle makes use of radio wave and antenna to measure how a lot propellant is out there within the engine’s tanks. It’s expertise that might be very important for measuring spacecraft gas ranges throughout long-duration area missions, particularly as a result of “slosh” could make measuring liquids in microgravity a problem.

This concern is of particular significance to NASA as a result of the company’s Artemis missions to return people to the lunar floor depend upon spacecraft that use cryogenic propellants — mainly SpaceX’s Starship Human Touchdown System and Blue Origins’ Blue Moon. These missions would require transferring giant quantities of cryogenic fluids from on-orbit depots to the spacecraft; whereas these fluids will must be on orbit for a lot longer than Odysseus was in transit to the moon, the IM-1 mission continues to be squarely kicking down the door for cryogenic use in area.