What the Nova-C lander could look like as it attempts to land on the Moon. Rendering courtesy Intuitive Machines

Texas Engineers are playing an important role in what could be the first U.S.-based lunar landing in more than 50 years.

Maruthi Akella, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, and his research team supported the development of an onboard guidance algorithm that will help space company Intuitive Machines  precisely target and point its lander toward its destination near the Moon’s south pole.

The focus of the program is on attitude control, which in this case means ensuring the lander is pointed at precisely the correct angle and direction to hit its target.

"Even small errors in vehicle pointing can lead to very large deviations and potentially send the vehicle dangerously off-course from its intended landing site," said Akella.

Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 Nova-C lunar lander is targeted for a multi-day launch window which opens no earlier than February 14, 2024 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If successful, the mission could mark the first U.S.-based soft Moon landing since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

One of the big challenges Akella and his research team faced owed to Nova-C’s unique vehicle geometry and propulsion constraints. As its main engine burns fuel, the vehicle’s mass distribution changes, thereby introducing uncertain effects into how much force and torque are imparted to the craft.

Because of that, the guidance logic for the main engine should include an onboard learning logic for accurately characterizing the instantaneous mass distribution of the vehicle.

To "smoothly land on its feet" the lander will have to make a sharp and complex turn, and accuracy in center of gravity estimates and attitude pointing will be key to a successful deorbit, descent and landing (DDL) sequence.

Akella and his team have deep and longstanding technical connections to Intuitive Machines that have also played a central role toward forging this collaboration for the IM-1 mission. Tim Crain, Intuitive Machines’ Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, is a distinguished UT Austin aerospace engineering alumnus and member of the department’s External Advisory Committee. As Intuitive Machines engineers were planning the mission, they reached out to Akella and his group to get the ball rolling for ensuring the guidance algorithm design would meet required stability margins.

“With a unique lander configuration and a short timeline, we needed partners on IM-1 with the right combination of familiarity with classical control techniques and mental flexibility to explore new concepts,” said Crain. “Dr. Akella and his team were the perfect fit for us and have made UT a valued member of our university support network. We look forward to more work with UT on future missions.”

Intuitive Machines is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative and the Artemis Campaign. A successful landing for Nova-C will help support the CLPS model for commercial payload deliveries to the lunar surface.

The science and technology payloads sent to the moon’s surface as part of CLPS will help lay the foundation for human missions and a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface.