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This image provided by Intuitive Machines shows its Odysseus lunar lander over the near side of the moon following lunar orbit insertion on Feb. 21.The Associated Press

Odysseus has landed – but not before keeping its human creators guessing for several tense minutes about the fate of their spacecraft on a lonely patch of lunar terrain more than 400,000 kilometres from Earth.

The implications are historic. For the first time, a spacecraft built by a private company rather than a country’s national space agency is operating on the moon – a long-anticipated feat that promises to draw the Earth’s vast and remote natural satellite into the domain of space commerce.

The Odysseus lander, developed by Intuitive Machines Inc., touched down at approximately 6:23 p.m. ET on Thursday.

But instead of receiving confirmation of a safe arrival, mission controllers were left anxiously looking for a signal and reassessing the data from the lander’s descent leading up to that point.

Finally, at 6:35 p.m., came a ray of hope.

“We have a signal from our high gain antenna and transmitter. It’s faint but it’s there,” said Tim Crain, chief technology officer for the Houston-based company and the mission’s flight director.

One minute later, Dr. Crain said: “What we can confirm, without a doubt, is that our equipment is on the surface of the moon and we are transmitting, so congratulations IM team,” as team members broke out in applause.

Later in the evening the company posted on the social media site X that, “After troubleshooting communications, flight controllers have confirmed Odysseus is upright and starting to send data.”

The post added that the mission team was working to acquire images of the landing site.

If Odysseus remains in good shape, the 4.3-metre-tall lander could survive for seven days on the lunar surface while it streams data back to Earth.

It has set down near the crater Malapert-A, roughly 300 kilometres from the moon’s south pole and the most southerly point reached by any lunar lander.

The dynamics of sending a spacecraft from Earth to the moon make it easier to land nearer to the equator than the poles. However, the south polar region is an object of high scientific interest because it dangles the possibility of finding water in the form of ice in areas that are in perpetual shadow thanks to the low angle of the sun near the pole.

Not far away are areas that are currently under consideration as possible landing sites for the Artemis 3, a crewed mission currently slated to fly in September, 2026, that would mark the return of U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon.

As a pathfinder for Artemis, Odysseus is the delivery vehicle for a suite of lunar science experiments created by the U.S. space agency, NASA, and others.

Its science payload includes an optical telescope built by Canadensys Aerospace Corp. of Bolton, Ont., for the International Lunar Observatory, an organization that seeks to make the moon a remote platform for astronomical observations.

Odysseus began its journey when it launched on Feb. 15 and achieved lunar orbit six days later. The descent to the surface began at 5:11 p.m. ET on Thursday when mission controllers placed the lander on an orbital path toward the surface.

Because the moon has no air to provide lift or friction, any spacecraft that attempts to land there must rely entirely on rocket power to slow its descent by precisely the right amount. It must also maintain a proper orientation while scanning the surface to find a suitable landing site that is free of boulders or other obstacles.

Thursday’s landing included the debut of a NASA-developed landing system that used lasers to help spot hazards as the lander approached the surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of several companies participating in a NASA-sponsored initiative to encourage the development of lunar landing capabilities in the commercial space sector.

“This is not an easy thing we have asked these companies to do, but if they’re successful, the upside for American exploration is just so great we have to try it,” Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during a live broadcast ahead of the landing.

For those who are planning future moon missions in the U.S. or elsewhere, Intuitive Machines’ achievement offers both encouragement and relief. Each such success demonstrates that – while difficult – the moon is an achievable and realistic goal for private companies and national space agencies with more modest budgets than the U.S. or China.

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The Odysseus lunar lander with the Earth in the background on Feb. 16.The Associated Press

The Canadian Space Agency is one such entity. Canada’s first lunar rover, a small four-wheeled robot built by Canadensys, will be moonward bound as early as 2026.

Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist and professor at Western University in London, Ont., is the rover’s principal investigator.

The landing of Odysseus “is incredibly exciting, as it opens the door to an entirely new way of doing lunar science,” Dr. Osinski told The Globe and Mail ahead of Thursday’s touchdown.

With private companies now in the mix, the number of ways of getting a small experiment to the moon is that much greater – a multiplier effect that until now has been absent and has limited progress in the field.

“Put simply, we’ll have way more opportunities to do lunar surface science and on a more frequent and regular time scale,” Dr. Osinski said.

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