Nova-C lander
SpaceX will launch Intuitive Machines' Nova-C lander in 2021, seeking to become the first commercial spacecraft to land on the moon. Credit: Intuitive Machines

WASHINGTON — Intuitive Machines has identified a landing site for a commercial lunar lander mission next year that will carry payloads from NASA and other customers.

The Houston-based company announced April 13 that its IM-1 lander mission, scheduled for launch in October 2021, will touch down near a valley called Vallis Schröteri in Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms. That valley, or rille, is the largest on the moon, and was under consideration by NASA as a landing site for the Apollo 18 mission before that mission’s cancellation.

Within that region, the company said it found a desirable landing site, 200 meters across, for its lander. Images of the landing site from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter show that site to be flat and devoid of large craters or rocks that would be a hazard to the lander. It will also have abundant sunlight throughout the lunar day, which lasts 14 Earth days.

“This kind of lunar landing assessment hasn’t been done since the 1972 Apollo mission,” argued Steve Altemus, president and chief executive of Intuitive Machines, in a company statement. “The tremendous effort our team has put forth to fully characterize our descent approach, landing site options and lighting conditions to ensure mission success is a paramount task required to fulfill our obligation to our private payload customers and NASA.”

Intuitive Machines was one of nine companies selected by NASA for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in November 2018, eligible to compete for task orders to carry payloads to the lunar surface. The company won one of the first task orders competed by NASA in May 2019.

At the time of the announcement, the company said it was planning to send the lander to either Oceanus Procellarum or Mare Serenitatis, with a launch scheduled for July 2021. Company spokesman Josh Marshall said April 13 the company pushed back the launch three months to mitigate the effect of a protest filed by another CLPS company, Deep Space Systems, to that task order award. That protest was later denied by the Government Accountability Office.

The IM-1 lander will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 under a launch contract the companies announced in October 2019. Intuitive Machines said in its announcement about the landing site that they have targeted a specific day for the launch: Oct. 11, 2021.

The IM-1 mission carry five payloads provided by NASA as part of the CLPS task order, as well as an unspecified set of commercial payloads. Marshall said the lander mission is fully booked, and that the company will announce its commercial deals “shortly.”

Astrobotic, which also received a CLPS task order in May 2019, is continuing work on its Peregrine lander, scheduled for launch in 2021 on the first flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Astrobotic said at the time it won the task order that it was planning to send the lander to Lacus Mortis, a volcanic plain in the northeastern quadrant of the near side of the moon. The company confirmed April 13 that remains the planned landing site for the mission.

NASA awarded a third CLPS task order April 8 to Masten Space Systems to carry a set of payloads to the south polar region of the moon in 2022. Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said in an interview that the company has a reference landing site for the mission, but will be open to changing it depending on the needs of the NASA and other payloads that will fly on the mission.

“Now we can work with the principal investigators and see if there’s another, better option that will get better science data and better results,” he said. “We have a landing site that we can use, and we’ll be able to iterate from there.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...