The Israel moon mission may not have been a complete success, but it did manage to send back a great selfie before the lander crashed. Beresheet was a privately funded mission to repeat what the US, the former Soviet Union, and China have all achieved: land a craft safely on the surface of the moon.
Notably, it aimed to do that on a relatively shoestring budget, compared to its predecessors. SpaceIL took advantage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch in mid-February to get its craft into space. It then began an elaborate process of gaining velocity to reach the moon.
Typically a mission to the moon would rely on a rocket to take the spacecraft the whole way. Because SpaceIL couldn’t count on that, however, it opted for a more complex route. By harnessing the Earth’s gravity it could effectively swing out to reach the moon.
It was a time consuming process – taking weeks rather than days – but a cost-effective one. Indeed, SpaceIL says it spent around $100m, a fraction of the usual cost, to get its lander into place. There, the goal was to safely touch down on the moon’s surface. Beresheet shared this photo of the moon as it began its descent.
Unfortunately that wasn’t to be the case. As it was descending, Beresheet – which means “in the beginning” in Hebrew – lost its connection with the command center in Israel.
“Preliminary technical information collected by the teams shows that the first technical issue occurred at 14 km above the Moon,” SpaceIL said. “At 150 meters when the connection with Beresheet was lost, it was moving at 500 km/h, making a collision inevitable.”
As for what went wrong, the investigation there is still ongoing. However, the current suspicion is that a glitch in one of the engine management systems caused a premature shut-down of the engine. “Our engineers think that a technical glitch in one of the components caused the main engine to shut down – making it impossible to slow the spacecraft’s descent,” the Beresheet team explains. “By the time the engine was restarted its velocity was too high to land properly.”
Too late to save the lander, but not too late to send back an epic selfie. The photo shows Beresheet headed down to meet the pockmarked moon surface, with its glistening gold legs outstretched, and a matching gold flag unfurled. “Small country, big dreams,” the flag proclaims.
Despite the less-than-ideal conclusion, the SpaceIL mission does set a few new records. It makes Israel the seventh country to orbit the moon, and the first privately funded mission to achieve a lunar orbit.