SpaceIL attempted, but missed, a historic first for private spaceflight and Israel — a soft landing on the Moon.
It wasn't to be. SpaceIL's Beresheet mission (Hebrew for the first phrase from the Book of Genesis, “in the beginning”) represented a historic first for Israel, as the company attempted a soft landing on the Moon on Thursday, April 11th.. After a nail-biting 20-minute descent, the lander impacted the Moon's surface at 19:23 UT / 3:23 PM EDT on the edge of Mare Serenitatis (Sea of Serenity).
The first phases of the descent seemed to go off without a hitch, but then trouble struck. Mission controllers announced that the lander was having trouble with its main descent engine at 6 miles (10 kilometers) above the lunar surface. Although the team was able to re-establish contact and restart the engine at about 492 feet (150 meters) above the lunar surface, it was too late. Final telemetry seems to show that the fast vertical descent caused the lander to slam into the lunar surface at a shattering 300 mph (134 m/s).
NASA's Deep Space Network tracked the lander's progress and relayed it to SpaceIL mission control in Tel Aviv, Israel, shortly before communication was lost.
"Well, we didn't make it, but we definitely tried," says Morris Khan (SpaceIL) during the live landing webcast from mission control. "I think the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud."
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter may try to image the crash site when it's illuminated over the coming week to attempt to reveal more on the incident.
This makes SpaceIL the first private organization, and Israel the fourth nation to attempt to soft land on the Moon, behind the Soviet Union, the U.S., and China. (Russia hasn't been to the Moon since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.) The Soviet Union carried out its first soft-landing on the Moon with Luna 9 on February 3, 1966, followed by the United States with Surveyor 1 on June 2, 1966. China's Chang'e 3 landed on the Moon on December 14, 2013 in the Mare Imbrium. China also carried out the first landing on the lunar farside on January 3, 2019 with its Chang'e 4 mission, landing in the South Pole-Aitken Basin region.
Launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 21, 2019, the Beresheet mission took 53 days to reach the Moon, using a series of orbital boosts that elongated its orbit for capture by the Moon's gravity on April 4th. Beresheet took several images of the Earth and the Moon along the way, including a photogenic sunrise along the limb of the Earth.
Beresheet's descent to the lunar surface lasted about 20 minutes, and the mission had an original 87 mile-wide (140-kilometer) landing zone.
The mission was slated to only last 48 to 72 hours. Beresheet was solar-powered, and the landing was timed to occur during lunar sunrise along the Mare Serenitatis site, but its electronics weren't built to withstand the full sunlight lunar day. Mainly a technology demonstrator, Beresheet also carried a small science package onboard, including a magnetometer, as well as a passive laser retro-reflector supplied by NASA.
Also aboard Beresheet was the Arch Mission Foundation's Lunar Library, which includes a 30 million-page archive encoded on dime-sized disks. These may have made it intact to the surface.
SpaceIL and its Beresheet lander (formerly known as "Sparrow") were born thanks to the Google Lunar X Prize project, a $30 million award to a team that could field a lander on the Moon. Though the March 31st deadline came and went unclaimed last year, SpaceIL decided to press on with the project, securing a spot on a SpaceX launch. The SpaceIL team had planned to command Beresheet to perform a short 500-meter hop using the lander's main engine towards this weekend, fulfilling the last Google Lunar X Prize requirement.
Beresheet cost about $100 million to build and was funded mostly by private donors — a cheap mission compared to, say, NASA's low-cost Lucy mission priced at $148 million. XPrize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis announced yesterday that SpaceIL would receive $1 million dollars toward the development of "Beresheet 2.0."
This news comes as we near an auspicious occasion: the 50th anniversary of the first crewed Moon landing, Apollo 11, which occurred on July 20, 1969. More Moon missions are in the works. India may soon follow Israel with its Chandrayaan 2 orbiter, lander and rover combo mission, with a launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Center now set for July 2019. China also plans to carry out a sample return mission using Chang'e 5 by the end of 2019.
For the U.S., bigger goals are afoot: Vice President Mike Pence and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently announced the intention to returning humans to the Moon by 2024. But how this is going to happen in such a short time span isn't immediately clear: the recently proposed NASA FY2020 budget doesn't show the kind of funding increase needed, and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket isn't set for its inaugural flight until the summer of 2020. Meanwhile, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is already open for business — it performed its second launch on the same day as the Beresheet landing. Some space pundits are wondering: do we need both SLS and Falcon Heavy? On a positive note, Lockheed Martin states that it can have a scaled-down version of its orbiting Lunar Gateway ready prior to a 2024 Moon landing.
If you've got clear skies tonight, be sure to step out and take a peek at the waxing first-quarter Moon and find the resting place of humanity's latest attempt to soft-land on its surface.