A private company’s lunar module entered orbit ahead of its descent to the Moon

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A private U.S. company’s lunar module entered low orbit around the moon Wednesday, ahead of an attempt to achieve an even greater feat: descending onto the gray, dusty surface.

A successful landing would mark the United States’ return to the Moon for the first time since NASA astronauts ended the Apollo program in 1972. If successful, it will be the first private spacecraft to land on the satellite.

Launched last week, Intuitive Machines fired its engine ahead of the dark side of the Moon, without contact with Earth. Flight controllers at the company’s headquarters in Houston had to wait for the craft to appear to determine whether the module was in orbit or drifting aimlessly.

Intuitive Machines confirmed that its module, called Odyssey, was in orbit around the Moon conducting experiments for NASA and other clients. The module is part of NASA’s project to launch a lunar economy; The space agency is paying $118 million to conduct experiments on the moon as part of this mission.

On Thursday, controllers will lower the orbit from 92 kilometers (60 miles) to 10 kilometers (6 miles) in a crucial maneuver that will take place on the far side of Earth’s natural satellite. They will then aim for a descent near the south pole. It is a dangerous site for landing on the Moon, full of craters and rocks, but is considered a valuable site for astronauts as these permanently shadowed craters are believed to contain frozen water.

The moon is littered with debris from failed landings. Some missions didn’t even get that far. Another US company, Astrobotic Technology, tried to send a module last month, but it didn’t even reach the Moon due to loss of fuel. This module returned to free fall through the atmosphere and burned up over the Pacific Ocean.

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