Kavya NarayananApr 12, 2019 08:24:17 IST
With three back-to-back supermoons this year, it's easy to close one's eyes and imagine the Moon is close enough to touch. For real though, that's easier imagined than done, and a claim that only three countries can make so far. But on 11 April, there was almost a fourth.
Israel's first mission to the moon, the Beresheet spacecraft, was expected to make a much-awaited touchdown on the Moon Thursday night.
We are ready for landing!
Following today’s maneuver Beresheet is again in an elliptical orbit, with its perilune (the closest point to the Moon) only 15-17 km from the moon’s surface and its epilune (the farthest point from the Moon) at 200 km.#IsraeltotheMoon #Beresheet
— Israel To The Moon (@TeamSpaceIL) April 10, 2019
The spacecraft didn't land successfully, but descended, and crashed into a massive lava plain on the Moon's near side, known as the Sea of Serenity, or Mare Seranitatis, between at around 4 pm ET Thursday (~1 am IST Friday morning).
A successful touchdown would have made this a historic first for both, Israel and the global private space industry. Since the lander crashed into the moon, Israel is now the fourth country to reach the Moon's surface after the Soviet Union, the United States and China, and the seventh country to orbit the Earth's only natural satellite.
What is the Beresheet spacecraft?
Beresheet, which gets its name from the Hebrew word for "Genesis", is a $100-million-spacecraft roughly the size of a washing machine. The team behind the Beresheet mission is an Israel space startup, SpaceIL, which tied up with Israel Aerospace Industries to build a four-legged lunar lander. Where many have hoped and dreamed, Beresheet was the first privately-funded mission to ever attempt to land on the Moon.
The mission was born out of Google's international Lunar X Prize competition, a platform to encourage entrepreneurship and private industry to take a shot at landing on the Moon. The winner would take home a $20-million-prize, and yet, the contest in 2018 come and went without anyone emerging a clear winner. It was a tough challenge, and SpaceIL, despite being the best of the contenders, didn't make the cut and win their one-way ticket to the Moon.
Tomorrow, @TeamSpaceIL is making history and headlines. 📰
— Lunar XPRIZE (@glxp) April 11, 2019
SpaceIL's project ballooned in cost over the years to around $100 million, largely funded by South African-Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn. The team raised over $88.4 mn in funding over two rounds, securing grants from the Kahn Foundation, but also other private funders. They managed to secure their $100 million and stopped short of finished what they started close to a decade ago in 2010.
If Beresheet's landing was a success, the Google Lunar XPrize would have presented the team with a $1 million "Moonshot Award", Space.com reported. It's no XPrize. But hey, SpaceIL is a pioneer in their own right (even if they still wouldn't have qualified for the XPrize having successfully completed their mission instead of crash landing on the surface.)
But the XPrize team decided to award SpaceIL the Award despite not having landed successfully. Some fuel for their next attempt, which many (SpaceIL included) think is an inevitabiility.
— Peter Diamandis (@PeterDiamandis) April 11, 2019
What were Beresheet's plans on the Moon?
The primary goal of the Beresheet mission was to make a successful moon landing, which we've already established is a tough task in itself. The spacecraft will have tried to do a few experiments in orbit, during landing, and another once it made its touchdown.
Beresheet was a 5-foot-lander that carried landing gear, a couple of scientific instruments, and a camera. Along for the ride was an Israeli flag and a "time capsule" packing a 30-million-page record of the history and culture of mankind, provided by the Arch Mission Foundation.
Beresheet's key science mission was an instrument called a magnetometer, to measure the magnetic field of rocks on the Moon's surface. Data from the instrument could help scientists understand when and how the moon acquired its magnetic field, Oded Aharonson, an Israeli planetary scientist said in a statement.
The lander also carried a "retroreflector" made by NASA to test a laser technology that works in tandem with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon for close to a decade.
The retroreflector was sent with Beresheet to test a method of precisely determining the location of landers like Beresheet in future moon missions that use the Deep Space Network to communicate with Earth. NASA plans to scatter many retroreflectors like it in different regions on the Moon in the near future, according to Space.com.
Apart from these, Beresheet was also equipped with sensors and cameras, which have beamed back some incredibly cool photographs en route to the Moon. Like this one, for instance:
The journey so far
The 585-kilogram spacecraft took off on a twice-used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 22 February. Though the main payload on the launch was actually an Indonesian satellite, Nusantara Satu, the relatively tiny moon lander Beresheet, which only tagged along for the ride, stole the show – and plenty of hearts!
The launch made Beresheet the first Israeli spacecraft to venture beyond Earth's orbit.
The launch put the mission on a seven-week journey to the Moon, during which it pulled off a couple of gravity assists – fly-bys of the Earth to use the planet's own gravity to gain the momentum it needs to fling itself towards the Moon. On 4 April, the spacecraft's engines were fired up again for 78 seconds as Beresheet made a deft maneuver out of the Earth's orbit and into the Moon's. It pulled off the "lunar capture" perfectly, hours away from the last leg – touchdown.
Beresheet's (unlucky) final mile
"The landing will be extremely challenging," Morris Kahn, the founder of SpaceIL, told BBC News before the spacecraft's landing. "But we've got good engineers, the spacecraft has responded well to our instructions over the last two months... I'm reasonably confident, but a little nervous."
Kahn's nerves were partly because the landing itself was out of their hands after a certain point. The spacecraft had to rapidly reduce its speed after descending, so it fired its engines one final time just as it approached the surface and hopefully, land with a gentle bump and not a crash. But crash into the Moon's surface it did.
The team thinks one of the lander's engines failed at a (really) inconvenient time – just as Beresheet's thrusters were fired up to slow it down as it hurtled towards the Moon.
And moments before it hit the ground, it captured one last photograph of what was in view.
— Elad Ratson 🇮🇱 (@EladRatson) April 11, 2019
Controls for this manoeuvre were programmed into the spacecraft ahead of time, and carried out with no live communication relays. SpaceIL's control room in Yehud, Israel was watching on just like the rest of us, and didn't seem terribly discouraged by their crash.
SpaceIL streamed the landing live from the control room on their YouTube channel. You could catch a recap here as it went live around 11.45 pm IST, courtesy of SpaceIL.
— Israel To The Moon (@TeamSpaceIL) April 11, 2019
Considering how close they came, I'm betting they'll nail it the next time.
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