The coolest new space pictures: February 2024

When the Odysseus lander left Earth, it carried, among other things, eight science instruments, a copy of the entire English Wikipedia, some magic tricks — and a switch set to the wrong position.

Odysseus Leaves Earth
Odysseus Leaves Earth The Odysseus lunar lander on its way to the Moon shortly after separating from a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster. Built by private company Intuitive Machines, Odysseus is part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload services program.Image: Intuitive Machines

That switch was a safety shutoff for the laser system meant to guide the spacecraft to a safe landing spot. With no way to turn the instrument back on, the mission’s future was in jeopardy. But Odysseus was built by private space company Intuitive Machines as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which means it carries several NASA instruments designed to help pave the way for future missions. And one of these, by complete chance, happened to be a LIDAR device that was a perfect substitute for the switched-off laser. Working under pressure and on the fly, the mission team adapted the lander’s software to make the switch.

On Feb. 22, 2024, Odysseus safely touched down on the Moon. It marks the first U.S. landing in over 50 years and the first ever by a private company. Only days later, Intuitive Machines realized: their last-minute patch didn’t work. Odysseus landed without either the LIDAR or laser system, making it safely to the Moon’s surface anyway. Though the lander seems to have landed on its side, it has transmitted data back to Earth. 

Elsewhere on the Moon, JAXA’s SLIM mission defied the odds to survive a long, cold lunar night. On Mars, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter appears to have snapped one of its blades clean off, and new orbiter images trace the flow of ancient water.

Leftover river beds on Mars
Leftover river beds on Mars Ridges trace where ancient rivers once flowed through Aeolis Planum on Mars; image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera and released Feb. 1, 2024.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona
Axiom Mission 3 Departs ISS
Axiom Mission 3 Departs ISS The SpaceX Dragon capsule containing the crew of Axiom Mission 3 undocks from the International Space Station, marking the beginning of the end for the private mission after 20 days in space.Image: ESA / NASA
Ingenuity Broken Blade
Ingenuity Broken Blade One of the helicopter blades from NASA's Ingenuity lying in the Martian sand about 15 meters (49 feet) away from the aircraft's final resting place. Image captured by the Perseverance rover.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / LANL / CNES / IRAP / Simeon Schmauß CC-BY
Odysseus Spotted From Above
Odysseus Spotted From Above The Odysseus spacecraft spotted at its landing site on the surface of the Moon. Image by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.Image: NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University
ERS-2 Breaking Before Reentry
ERS-2 Breaking Before Reentry Radar images showing the deterioration of ESA's second European Remote Sensing satellite, or ERS-2, as its orbit lowers toward atmospheric reentry. The satellite's solar array appears broken in the last of the three images, which were taken by the Tracking and Imaging Radar at the Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques FHR in Germany.Image: Fraunhofer FHR
SLIM Reawakens
SLIM Reawakens JAXA's SLIM spacecraft took this image of the Moon's surface after successfully reactivating after 14 days of lunar night. The mission was not expected to survive.Image: JAXA
Plumes of Io side-on
Plumes of Io side-on Plumes rising off the surface of Io as the result of volcanic activity, viewed side-on here by the Juno spacecraft.Image: NASA/ JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / AndreaLuck © CC BY

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect new information about the role of NASA's LIDAR instrument in Odysseus' landing.