Space exploration for Israel could have come to a grinding halt in 2003, when the country’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, perished with his American colleagues in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. It took years for the Israel space program to get back on track. But with this week’s launch of the SpaceIL lunar spacecraft, the sky is the limit.
Beresheet, the Jewish state’s first lunar spacecraft, was slated to blast off from the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, overnight Thursday. It makes Israel only the fourth country after the US, the former Soviet Union and China to embark on such a mission, but it also will be the first such spacecraft to land on the moon funded by private initiative, rather than a solely government-funded enterprise.
Beresheet was to be launched as part of a payload on Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. After detaching from the launcher, it was then to begin its elliptical orbit of the Earth. After two months, it is set to land on the moon in the Sea of Serenity on April 11.
The landing sequence was set to take around 15 minutes, to be monitored by a joint group from the Israel Space Agency (ISA), the Weizmann Institute of Science and NASA. During a mission slated to last just two to three days on the moon, Beresheet will use onboard instruments to photograph the landing site, measure the moon’s magnetic field and send all the data back to SpaceIL’s Israel-based ground station in Yehud, via NASA’s Deep Space Network, according to SpaceIL vice president Yigal Harel.
Millions of dollars in funding have gone into the project from several donors, including Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, SpaceIL chairman Morris Kahn, and the Science and Technology Ministry.
“This is the first mission of a small country to the moon, but it’s a non-government mission to the moon, which is privately financed,” SpaceIL CEO Dr. Ido Anteby said on Monday at a press conference in Tel Aviv. “It will open new horizons to the moon for commercial opportunities.”
“When the spacecraft lands on the moon during Passover, this is going to be one of the highlights of the State of Israel since its establishment. This is a national event,” Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis told the The Jerusalem Post.
He noted that the budget for the ministry is the highest ever this fiscal year (2018-2019), adding that: “I foresee a great future for the State of Israel in general and in the hi-tech industry and the space industry for the next decade.”
Beresheet, traveling at speeds of 36,000 kilometers per hour, is carrying a digital time capsule loaded with Hebrew songs, stories, and Israel’s Declaration of Independence and national anthem, among other national symbols. The time capsule, along with the spacecraft, is set to remain on the moon indefinitely.
This mission is no simple feat. At first the craft will enter Earth’s orbit, but it will have to enter the moon’s orbit when the two overlap. Once it lands, pinpointing its exact location on the moon will prove difficult as well. NASA’s laser retro-reflector is on board to help achieve this maneuver and help the team of scientists on Earth track its progress.
“For many months, our team and IAI’s were engaged in testing the spacecraft and its systems, conducting complex experiments and preparing for every possible scenario of the mission,” Anteby said.
SpaceIL and ISA are collaborating with NASA and the Weizmann Institute of Science to improve the tracking and communication with the module before, during and after landing. Scientists will also measure the magnetic field at the landing site by using a laser beam system engineered by NASA that will help them pinpoint its exact location.
“I’m thrilled to extend progress in commercial cooperation that we’ve made in low-Earth orbit to the lunar environment – with this new agreement with the Israel Space Agency and SpaceIL,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine when the agreement was signed last year. “Innovative partnerships like this are going to be essential as we go forward to the moon and create new opportunities there.”
Beresheet began with SpaceIL founders Yariv Bash, Yonatan Winetraub and Kfir Damari in 2010. The effort was originally part of a Google Lunar X competition with a prize of $20 million. SpaceIL entered the race in 2012 and, after partnering with IAI, became the first international team in 2015 to sign a contract with aerospace manufacturer SpaceX and have its financial and technical details approved by the contest.
The original competition involved placing a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, traveling 500 meters on the moon, and transmitting high-definition video and images back to Earth. Israel was one of five finalists in the final stage but no winner was ever declared. SpaceIL vowed to maintain its efforts to put Israel on the moon, arguing that its motivation was not the money, but about “showing the next generation that anything is possible – that even our small country can push the limits of imagination,” Anteby said in March.
“Space is the ultimate thing. It’s something that is so hard to do, even today... rockets still blow up; it’s still rocket science. This is one of the ultimate technological-engineering challenges,” Bash said, noting the difficulties of past space-bound projects.
Nimrod Sheffer, CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries, earlier this week praised the collaboration, saying, “As the Israeli home of space exploration, it was only natural that we [IAI] would join SpaceIL’s wonderful and visionary project. The cooperation between us is a shining example of the extraordinary accomplishments we can achieve in the State of Israel.”Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara watched the launch from the control room of the IAI. The prime minister called Israel a "small but huge country" noting that despite its smaller land mass and population compared to the other participating nations, Israel is a "giant in initiative, huge in achievements." He praised the scientists and philanthropists who worked on the project and called for a moment to remember fallen Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, his son Asaf who died in a plane crash and his wife Rona who died this year of cancer. Netanyahu called the moon launch a moment to remember which reached "far beyond money, even more than technology. There is great inspiration here."