Private US spacecraft enters orbit around the moon ahead of landing attempt

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A private U.S. lunar lander reached the moon and eased into a low orbit Wednesday, a day before it will attempt an even greater feat — landing on the gray, dusty surface.

A smooth touchdown would put the U.S. back in business on the moon for the first time since NASA astronauts closed out the Apollo program in 1972. The company, if successful, also would become the first private outfit to ace a moon landing.

Launched last week, Intuitive Machines’ lander fired its engine on the back side of the moon while out of contact with Earth. Flight controllers at the company’s Houston headquarters had to wait until the spacecraft emerged to learn whether the lander was in orbit or hurtling aimlessly away.

Intuitive Machines confirmed its lander, nicknamed Odysseus, was circling the moon with experiments from NASA and other clients. The lander is part of a NASA program to kickstart the lunar economy; the space agency is paying $118 million to get its experiments on the moon on this mission.

On Thursday, controllers will lower the orbit from just under 60 miles (92 kilometers) to 6 miles (10 kilometers) — a crucial maneuver occurring again on the moon’s far side — before aiming for a touchdown near the moon’s south pole. It’s a dicey place to land with all the craters and cliffs, but deemed prime real estate for astronauts since the permanently shadowed craters are believed to hold frozen water.

The moon is littered with wreckage from failed landings. Some missions never even got that far. Another U.S. company — Astrobotic Technology — tried to send a lander to the moon last month, but it didn’t get there because of a fuel leak.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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