Seven weeks after Israeli spacecraft Beresheet (Hebrew for Genesis) soared into the night sky at Cape Canaveral, Florida, commencing an epic 6.5 million km. journey, it is poised to make history on Thursday evening when it reaches the Moon.
Only three countries have completed the formidable task of landing a spacecraft on the lunar surface – the United States, Russia (then the USSR) and China. The tiny State of Israel is set to join that prestigious club of cosmic superpowers.
Beresheet, the ambitious project developed by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, has been making history even before the unmanned vessel was launched on February 22, becoming the world’s first spacecraft built by a non-governmental organization.
Last week the spacecraft left the Earth’s orbit and began its descent to the lunar surface. Only seven countries have been able to successfully place a spacecraft in the Moon’s orbit.
While such an achievement alone is already a source of pride for Beresheet’s engineers, the eyes of nine million Israelis and people across the Earth will be fixed on the Mare Serenitatis (Sea of Serenity) on Thursday evening at approximately 10:30 p.m. local time, with high hopes for a successful lunar landing.
“The most significant thing is not just becoming the fourth country to land on the Moon, but our desire for young people in Israel to go and learn science,” Yigal Harel, head of SpaceIL’s spacecraft program, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“We know that we’re a start-up nation, and there’s a lot of hi-tech here and that people are our main resource. We want enthusiastic young pupils to go and learn engineering, mathematics, physics and more.”
On Wednesday evening, Beresheet took a critical step en route to the Moon when it executed its final pre-landing maneuver.
The maneuver shifted the spacecraft from a circular orbit of the moon at a height of 200 km into an elliptical orbit with a perilune of 15 km and an apolune of 200 km.
Once in position to descend, the landing maneuver – split into two phases of decreasing horizontal velocity and then vertical velocity – is expected to take some 15 minutes.
“From the launch until the landing, it has been very exciting and emotional in the control room. We are very much proud of the spacecraft’s performance until now,” said Harel.
“Although we have had some issues, the spacecraft and the ground segment have been very reliable. This makes us believe that the landing will be okay too. We are not afraid. We are proud and excited, and hoping for a soft landing.”
The motivation to inspire younger generations to pursue scientific studies, Israel’s version of the “Apollo Effect,” has remained constant since the beginning of SpaceIL’s saga eight years ago, when co-founders Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yehonatan Weintraub enrolled in the Google Lunar XPRIZE challenge.
While the race ended with no winner in March 2018, SpaceIL continued with its mission to reach the Moon, backed by a group of private donors headed by Morris Kahn.
Once it lands safely on the Moon, the spacecraft will photograph the landing site and snap a selfie. Its key scientific mission, however, is to measure the Moon’s magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science.
NASA is also participating in the mission and has installed a laser retro-reflector on the spacecraft to assist with communication after landing.
“Of course, as engineers, we know that there are some issues that we might encounter that are beyond our limits. If we fall into a crater, it will be bad luck,” said Harel.
“But we’ll be sure that we did everything to land the spacecraft safely, and we are very proud that we reached the stage of making Israel the seventh country to orbit the moon.”
Beresheet will be the smallest spacecraft to land on the moon, measuring 1.5 meters tall, two meters wide and weighing 600 kg. Fuel represents approximately 75% of its payload. The spacecraft will also symbolically deposit an Israeli flag and time capsule on the Moon, containing hundreds of digital files, cultural items and materials collected by the SpaceIL crew and general public.
The mission budget stands at about NIS350 million, far less than the other three countries which have undertaken the mission.
“There are many reasons why Israel was the world leader in developing small satellites and spacecraft for many years, but the main reason is always resources,” said Dr. Raz Itzhaki-Tamir, co-founder and CEO of NSLComm, a leading Airport City-based developer of nanosatellite communication technology.
“Thus, when the Beresheet project started, the three founders thought about taking a nano-satellite that weighs three kg. to the Moon. But this was impossible. Eventually, from three kg., the spacecraft grew to 600 kg. Still, it’s one of the smallest spacecraft that’s ever landed on the moon,” Itzhaki-Tamir added.
“Beresheet is like other Israeli inventions, such as the USB flash drive and cherry tomato. Let’s do it more efficiently, smaller and cheaper. It does always mean that you carry more risks but, when you succeed, you gain so much that the risk is worthwhile.”
Those wishing to watch history unfold as it happens can tune in to a live broadcast from the SpaceIL control room at www.contactgbs.com/space/
. As the exact landing time may change as the event nears, viewers are advised to regularly check social media for updates.
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