Israeli Spacecraft Fails to Make First Private Lunar Landing

Tech

Beresheet, a modest Israeli spacecraft with the audacious aim of making a soft landing on the moon, came close but ultimately failed in its goal on Thursday. The probe crashed on the lunar surface after engine and communication troubles arose shortly before its planned touchdown. The vehicle, engineered by an Israeli nonprofit organization called SpaceIL, would have been the first private spacecraft to make a lunar landing—and would have made Israel only the fourth country to do so, after the U.S., the former Soviet Union and China.

“Well, we didn’t make it, but we definitely tried,” said SpaceIL president Morris Kahn during a live broadcast of the landing attempt. “I think the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud.”

The $100 million Beresheet spacecraft was not an Israeli government project but was instead funded, built and operated through SpaceIL’s efforts. It was the first of several privately funded lunar landing attempts slated for the next few years—part of a potential new international “moon rush,” as both global powers and private companies race back to Earth’s nearest neighbor.

“I think everybody kind of realizes that this is a long shot, that this is a very challenging thing to go try to do,” said Bruce Pittman, a contractor at NASA and senior vice president and senior operations officer for the National Space Society, before the landing attempt. “These other teams are so far down the road, with so much momentum—they will all have their shot. They don’t all have to work. I’m just hoping that at least one of the near-term attempts, of the five to six that should happen over next 12 to 18 months, will be successful.”

Beresheet’s Beginning

“Beresheet is a biblical word, the Hebrew word for the book of Genesis,” said SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub in an earlier interview. “It also means ‘in the beginning.’ It was proposed by the public and selected by national [Israeli] vote. The naming captures the essence of the mission: a grassroots, bottom-up effort that is only the beginning.”

Although it launched in February, hitching a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying an Indonesian communications satellite and a U.S. Air Force payload, Beresheet’s journey properly began one fateful night in 2010. That was when three young Israelis—Winetraub, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari—first pondered a private moon mission over beers in a bar outside Tel Aviv. The trio went on to found SpaceIL as way to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a contest that began in 2007. The contest had promised a first-prize purse of $20 million for the first private robotic lander to reach the moon and then complete a series of objectives, such as traversing 500 meters and sending back high-definition imagery. The three optimists decided they had a shot at winning. “How little we knew then,” Winetraub said. “We were sitting in that bar in 2010, thinking about how amazing it would be to get to the moon.”

In 2011, after giving a short invited presentation to the Israel Space Agency, the SpaceIL founders were approached by someone who had been watching in the audience. “This person came up to us and said, ‘Do you have any money?’ and we just looked at each other—the answer was obviously no,” Winetraub recalled. “He said, ‘Come to my office; I’ll give you a check for $100,000.’ He has given a lot more ever since.” That person was Kahn, a billionaire Israeli entrepreneur who later became SpaceIL’s president. With Kahn’s help, the organization attracted additional hefty donations, such as a $16.4 million contribution from U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

“Aiming for the moon showcases Israel’s strongest abilities,” Kahn said earlier. “We dare to dream—innovation, desire, curiosity and complexity are part of our DNA, and this project has them all. I want to get the younger generation excited about and interested in space, just like the Apollo program did for the United States.” From the early days, that ethos has driven SpaceIL’s planning, which, its members say, has been centered around education and outreach rather than turning a profit.

The 1.5-meter-tall Beresheet carried a small time capsule of cultural artifacts for long-term preservation on the near-static lunar surface. It also had NASA-supplied laser retroreflectors, which can be used by other spacecraft in or near lunar orbit for precise ranging and metrology. On Beresheet’s way down to the surface, a magnetometer built by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was intended to scan the desolate terrain below, gathering new data about the landscape’s magnetic field that could help unveil the moon’s deepest origins and history.

The Race Continues

Ultimately SpaceIL—and all its competitors—failed to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE: the competition was canceled last year after no one succeeded within the deadline (originally 2014, and later pushed to 2018). Although it never awarded the $20 million, the XPRIZE stimulated a sizable private moon race and gave out smaller prizes worth more than $5 million along the way. “We are proud that the Google Lunar XPRIZE, though it went unclaimed, stimulated a diversity of teams from around the world to pursue, and continue to pursue, such ambitious plans that were deemed impossible when we first launched this competition,” said Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, the XPRIZE Foundation’s vice president of prize operations.

Several former XPRIZE competitors remain dedicated to sending their own robotic landers to the moon in the near future, most notably the U.S.-based Astrobotic and Moon Express teams, as well as the Japanese company ispace. SpaceX is planning to fly a Japanese artist and eight additional crew members around the moon in the company’s Dragon capsule as early as 2023, and another aerospace upstart, Blue Origin, is in the midst of developing a heavy-duty lunar lander. In the loftier realm of nation-states, the U.S., Europe, China, Russia, India, Japan and South Korea all have burgeoning lunar exploration programs supported by generous contracts with major aerospace companies. (SpaceIL, for its part, has partnered with Israel Aerospace Industries to produce near-clones of Beresheet for customers interested in potential future interplanetary forays.)

“We’re going through a paradigm shift in aerospace,” Pittman said. “What’s so exciting and frightening to a lot of people is the rules of the game are changing dramatically. The standard way you did things—government leads, industry follows—all those rules are fundamentally changing, and I personally think that’s a really great thing.”

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