Israel has been the fourth state that has managed to land a spacecraft on the Moon, and the seventh that has orbited it. It is the first space mission that managed to reach the Moon with private financing and at a very low cost.
The lander was given the name Beresheet (“Genesis”).
This great triumph was the result of eight years of hard work by engineers from SpaceIL, a non-profit organization, in collaboration with Israel Aerospace Industries and the Israeli government.
How the mission was funded
SpaceIL started this project by participating in a competition organized by Google, called the “Google Lunar X Prize”, which consisted of proposing a system to send a robot to the Moon.
The award was void because no one met the deadlines. However, SpaceIL continued with its dream and continued to work on the endeavor of planning to send a robot to the Moon.
The prestige of SpaceIL and the excellent elaboration of the ambitious project, won the support of the Israeli Space Agency and the Israel Aerospace Industries, as well as the help of private donations.
The mission had an approximate cost of US $ 100 million, an amount much lower than the usual disbursements in this type of space projects.
Objectives of the lunar mission
The objectives of the mission were to land on the Moon, take pictures, leave information on human culture, and carry out some experiments.
It was wanted to be installed on the Moon:
- a magnetometer supplied by the Israeli Weizmann Institute of Science to measure the local magnetic field and
- a laser retroreflector supplied by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, to allow precise measurements of the Earth-Moon distance. Being a passive device that does not require electrical power, it was expected to work for several decades.
A “digital time capsule” was also planned to be deposited on the Moon.
This “time capsule, digital” contained more than 30 million pages of data:
- a full copy of the English Wikipedia,
- the Wearable Rosetta disc,
- the PanLex database,
- the Torah,
- drawings for children,
- a children’s book inspired by the space launch,
- memoirs of a Holocaust survivor,
- the national anthem of Israel (“Hatikvah”),
- the Israeli flag and
- a copy of the Israel Declaration of Independence.
Launch of the spaceship
In October 2015, SpaceIL had signed a contract for a launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a SpaceX Falcon rocket.
Beresheet took off for the Moon on February 22, 2019, along with a telecommunications satellite.
The spacecraft had nine engines. The propulsion system was designed and built by Israel Aerospace Industries, using monomethylhydrazine (MMH) and mixed oxides of nitrogen (MON) as fuel.
The net mass of the ship was 150 kg. With all the fuel, the mass reached 585 kg.
Seven ground stations were used for Beresheet’s communication with the mission control room in Yehud, Israel.
Approach to the Moon
From February 24 to March 19, 2019, the main engine was used four times to raise the orbit, placing its apogee close to the orbital distance of the Moon.
The spacecraft maneuvered into an elliptical lunar orbit on April 4, 2019.
On April 11, 2019, the flight pattern was adjusted in a circular orbit around the Moon, and it began to decelerate, to achieve a soft landing on the lunar surface.
Landing on the moon
The planned landing site for the Beresheet module was in the northern part of the Serenity Sea, in an area 15 km in diameter.
On April 11, 2019, the lander unsuccessfully attempted a landing on the lunar surface.
During the braking procedure as it approached the landing site, when it was just 20 km from the ground, an inertial measurement unit gyroscope failed.
The ground control team was unable to reset the individual agent due to a sudden loss of communications with the control network.
When communications were reestablished and the system, the main engine, rebooted, the spacecraft was already 150 m from the ground, and it reached the surface of the Moon, at a speed and angle that did not allow a smooth landing.
Before impact, the probe had been able to take the last two photos, a photo of itself against the moon and a closer shot of the moon’s surface.
After mission failure
No one took the ruling as a defeat. The President of SpaceIL said: “We have had a failure in the spacecraft and unfortunately we have not been able to manage the landing successfully.”
“If the first time you are not successful, you have to put him back in”.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, encouraged the directors of the Beresheet project.
After the mission, the “Lunar X Prize” awarded US $ 1 million to Space IL in support of a second mission.
On April 13, 2019, Morris Kahn, President of Space IL, announced that a new mission, called Beresheet-2, would attempt to make a soft landing on the moon.
In a television message, Morris Kahn said: “Good evening, people of Israel. I have a message for you. After all the massive support I received from around the world for this project, I decided to lead a new project: Beresheet-2.
Hope we can complete this new mission. This is my goal. My message to all young people is that if it doesn’t work out at first, get up and get it done. This is what I am doing, and what I wanted to tell you tonight. Thanks”.
The Beresheet2 mission, due to take off in early 2024. The featured ship is very different from the first Beresheet.
The project is now much more complex and includes three vehicles: an orbiter that will carry two landing probes folded inside.