Earlier today, Israel’s intrepid Beresheet spacecraft attempted to touch down on the surface of the moon. While the endeavor was regrettably not a successful one, the mission broke substantial ground in its goal to land the world’s first private spacecraft on lunar terrain.
Named after the Hebrew word for Genesis, the Beresheet aimed to become the first-ever privately developed craft to plant its landing legs on lunar soil. The unmanned vehicle was supposed to make a soft landing on the near side of the moon – the side that always faces Earth – at 3:25 p.m. ET. However, “a failure in the spacecraft” prevented the mission from reaching its goal, leaving Israel unable to safely land the craft on the moon’s surface, The Jerusalem Post is reporting.
“The State of Israel fell just short of becoming only the fourth member of a prestigious club of nations to complete the formidable task of landing a spacecraft on the lunar surface,” after the former Soviet Union, the United States, and China, notes the media outlet.
After what looked like a flawless first phase of deceleration ahead of approaching the moon, the mission’s team lost contact with the probe minutes before what would have been a historic landing. Following a series of technical problems, the craft eventually went silent, ceasing all communication with mission control in Yehud, Israel, and is presumed to have crash-landed on the lunar surface.
“If at first you don’t succeed, you try and try again – and we’ll try again,” said the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who watched the landing attempt from mission control.
“We reached the moon, but we wanted to land more safely. The attempt alone is a huge achievement. An Israeli satellite will one day land on the moon.”
Developed by the nonprofit organization SpaceIL in partnership with the government-owned aerospace company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Beresheet was originally built as a contender for Google’s now-defunct Lunar Xprize – an initiative that challenged private companies to try to land an unmanned craft on the moon.
At nearly five feet high, 6.5 feet wide, and weighing a little over 1,300 pounds, the Beresheet boasts the title of the smallest probe to ever aim for the moon. No bigger than a washing machine, the Israeli spacecraft took to the skies on February 21 as part of a SpaceX rideshare and successfully entered lunar orbit on April 4.
In preparation for landing day, the Beresheet had spent the last six weeks flying around planet Earth in a spiraling series of ever-widening orbits in order to raise itself toward the moon and get into the optimal position to slide into lunar orbit, notes Space. After an epic two-month journey of more than 4 million miles around the Earth, the Israeli lunar probe finally geared up for its highly anticipated touchdown on April 11.
The spacecraft had set its sights on a landing site located within a vast, ancient lava plain called Mare Serenitatis (“Sea of Serenity”), about 30 degrees north of the lunar equator. As Forbes points out, the Beresheet targeted a touchdown location found roughly halfway between the landing sites of NASA’s Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 missions.
The Israeli lunar probe began the landing process at 3:12 p.m. ET in what appeared to be very auspicious circumstances.
“The spacecraft is doing exactly what’s supposed to do right now,” Opher Doron, general manager of IAI’s space division, said at mission control two minutes later, as the Beresheet ignited its 100-pound-thrust main engine to commence the breaking process.
As Ars Technica remarked, the spacecraft fired its thrusters to reduce its velocity from about 3.7 mph (with respect to the moon) to zero. As it began its descent toward the lunar ground, the Beresheet snapped a selfie from a distance of 13.6 miles of the moon’s surface.
After an initial period of smooth sailing, the Israeli craft ran into a small snag that caused the mission’s team to lose telemetry for a few moments. At around 3:23 p.m. ET, the Beresheet suffered a problem with its main engine when the craft was about 1.2 miles away from the lunar surface and eventually lost communication with SpaceIL’s control center in Yehud.
“According to initial assessments, one of the spacecraft’s inertial measurement units (IMUs) failed during the final effort. A full investigation will now begin,” details The Jerusalem Post.
“Where we got to was very tremendous and we can be very proud,” SpaceIL chairman Morris Kahn chimed in.
While the mission ended in failure, the company’s efforts were not in vain. Following today’s landing attempt, Peter Diamandis and Anousheh Ansari from the X Prize Foundation have announced that they will grant a $1 million Moonshot Award to SpaceIL to continue the mission.
According to Netanyahu, Israel is aiming to send out another lunar lander in 2021.