US spacecraft on the moon ‘caught a foot’ and tipped on to side, says Nasa

Odysseus, the first US-built spacecraft to touchdown on the moon in more than half a century, is tipped over on its side, according to an update from Nasa and Intuitive Machines, the company that built and operated the lander.

The robotic lander descended on to the south polar region of the moon on Thursday at 6.23pm ET. But several minutes passed before flight controllers were able to pick up a signal from the lander’s communication systems.

As it landed, Odysseus “caught a foot in the surface and tipped” said Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus, ending up on its side.

Still, the lander is “near or at our intended landing site”, he said. Nasa and Intuitive Machines said they have been receiving data from the lander and believe that most of the scientific instruments that it is carrying are in a position to work.

“It really was a magical, magical day,” said Tim Crain, chief technology officer and co-founder of Intuitive Machines, at the Friday press conference.

The area where Odysseus landed, near the crater Malapert A close to the moon’s south pole, is a treacherous terrain, pockmarked with craters – but it was chosen because scientists believe it will be rich with frozen water that could help sustain a permanent lunar base in the future.

Imagery from the landing and a reconstruction of how it happened will likely be available in the coming days.

An artist’s rendering of the Odysseus spacecraft after landing on the moon. Scientists say the craft is currently tipped on its side. Photograph: Intuitive Machines/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Nasa paid Intuitive Machines $118m to undertake the journey, as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which awards contracts to private partners. The mission is part of the Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon.

During Odysseus’s seven-day mission, which will be fueled by solar power until the landing site moves into earth’s shadow, Nasa hopes to analyse how soil there reacted to the impact of the landing. The agency has also sent other instruments as part of the lander’s payload, including communication devices.

The 14ft (4.3 metres) hexagonal, six-legged lander used Nasa’s experimental laser navigation system to guide its descent after Intuitive Machines’ laser instrument failed.

An instrument called EagleCam, a cube with cameras designed by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing, but the device was deliberately powered off during descent because the navigation system needed to be switched.

Embry-Riddle’s Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26ft (8 metres) away.

With lingering uncertainty over Odysseus’s position on the moon, “getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told Associated Press.