Israel to the moon!

The Beresheet spacecraft blasts off toward a brighter future.

The control room at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters (photo credit: ISRAEL AEROSPACE INDUSTRIES)
The control room at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters
After numerous tests and updates from Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters, the first Israeli spacecraft, Beresheet (Genesis) is on its way to the moon. Its engine has been activated and it is currently speeding along at up to 36,000 km/h (more than 22,000 mph) orbiting the Earth. Located at a distance of almost 70,000 km (44,000 miles) from Earth, it will travel along the elliptical orbit for two months until it reaches the moon.
By using energy converted from solar panels, the spacecraft saves not only on fuel and weight, but on costs as well. Scientists and tech staff at IAI headquarters were notified of the spacecraft’s high sensitivity toward the sun’s rays in the star trackers on board, but are hopeful that this issue can be resolved. As of this writing, it successfully enabled its engine and was on course to complete its first circle around the Earth.
The solar waves in space are more powerful than expected and are blinding the spacecraft at times. When asked about the possible damage, Ephi, the SpaceIL project manager at IAI who cannot disclose his full name, told The Jerusalem Report, “It’s not easy to send a spaceship to the moon, but it knows how to protect itself, God forbid, and in case anything happens, it can enter a ‘safe mode.’”
He explained how at IAI headquarters and around the world an open line of communication is available with the spacecraft.
“There are stations all over the world… that can track the spacecraft,” Ephi said. He explained the location of numerous satellite dishes that can track its movement – even from thousands of miles away.
“The farther the spacecraft is, the more difficult the communication line is, in terms of power, but there are enough antennas for this,” he said.
Furthermore, there are two types of solar panels used by the craft to reach the moon; one is used for travel, while the other is used for landing. “The spacecraft constantly uses its panels to face toward the sun. This loads the battery and allows the spacecraft to operate,” he said.
“We have opened a line of communication – this is very exciting. The trip is very long and challenging. We have a long complex way ahead of us. There is a team of super-smart physicists [and engineers] who are working on this and overseeing Beresheet’s path through the control room,” said Opher Doron, general manager of MBT Space Division at IAI.
AS SOME 500 people gathered in a room at the Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters in Yehud, facing two large screens awaiting the early morning takeoff on Friday, February 22. Many held their breath: would the launch be successful or not? The tension in the room was palpable. Journalists, experts and workers gathered at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters in Yehud, while plenty of viewers eagerly watched at home. The historic event began at 3:45 a.m. Israel time, livestreaming from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:45 p.m. eastern time.
An hour before the launch, people sat at the edge of their seats as a scientist from IAI explained the process Beresheet would go through as it left Earth’s atmosphere and entered the elliptical orbit of our planet for two months, before making the transfer to the moon’s orbit and its slow but sure landing on the lunar surface.
At the grand hall in Yehud, many sat eating popcorn in front of the large screens as they eagerly awaited lift off, which despite being over 3,000 miles away in Florida, contained the buzz and excitement of a historic event. It was the culmination of Israel’s dream to fly to the moon, making the Jewish state only the fourth country to do so, after the US, Russia and China.
“We have hopes to reach the moon,” said an emotional Morris Kahn, 88, the chairman of SpaceIL and an immigrant entrepreneur philanthropist from South Africa, who donated more than 40 million dollars to the project. “And that hope... her name is Beresheet.”
As Beresheet launched off SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the countdown was imminent. People in the room clapped and chanted the final countdown. The energy was intense and tangible – you could feel the excitement building.
When Beresheet detached from the launcher to loud cheers, it then separated from the launcher and finally disengaged from it completely.
It spent 19 minutes in space during which the audience waited breathlessly for it to begin to enter Earth’s elliptical orbit.
While many in the audience and those at home watching the event applauded and even cried with excitement as the spacecraft hurtled through space, Kahn told The Report, “It gave one a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It’s beautiful to watch this fantastic project with beautiful engineering and the planning that goes into it – to see the living thing work. It’s really exciting to watch.”
When asked about the donations that have gone into this project, he explained, “It is so much cheaper than other projects. It’s still a lot of money – at $100 million – but it has cost the three other countries who have done it billions, and they’ve got big industries that do this. We had to innovate. And this is where Israel is great – we know how to find solutions to problems. We can use the lightest spacecraft that has ever been used – by anyone!”
Describing Beresheet’s process of orbiting the Earth repeatedly, before it enters the lunar orbit, Kahn said that “by using very little fuel, it saves money [as well as conserves weight]. And this is the secret of doing it light and cheap.”
Still, others such as Yariv Bash, one of the co-founders of SpaceIL, noted that the craft has yet to actually land on the moon. “It still didn’t happen, it’s only the beginning,” said an excited Bash. “It felt like a stone dropped from my heart watching it,” and noted that he and others at SpaceIL and IAI eagerly await Beresheet’s landing on the lunar surface – now scheduled for April 11. “We have a long way ahead of us. I expect the spacecraft will land [smoothly] and that everything will work how it is supposed to.”
The joint team of engineers, scientists and project managers were mostly male. However, as one of the leading women in this project – Inbal Kreiss is the Deputy General Director of MBT Space Division – she told The Report that this shouldn’t deter women from pursuing these types of careers. She believes that women can achieve anything. “You can do anything, you can reach as high as you want,” she said, adding that women “should only set the bar high for themselves.”
“This is a great accomplishment for the State of Israel,” a proud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also attended the historic moment, told the crowd.
SPACE HAS always been a dream for many, especially in Israel. Dreams of reaching the new frontier were crushed when the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, died in the tragic disaster of the Columbia Space Shuttle crash in 2003. Now, new hope has arisen among those in Israel to try once more – this time to land on the moon. Years of funding, patience and Israeli ingenuity have gone into this project. On February 22, the first Israeli lunar spacecraft launched from the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, taking Israel to new heights – and making it only the fourth country to embark on such a mission.
Start-up SpaceIL along with Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) partnered to create Beresheet, which has been in the making for eight years. The project began in 2010 with SpaceIL founders, Yariv Bash, Yonatan Winetraub and Kfir Damari, who joined engineers and scientists at IAI to take this idea from simply a dream to reality.
Doron told The Report: “What inspired people to donate to this project was the impossible dream of reaching the moon.” He noted that “this is also the first deployment of a spacecraft outside the Earth’s orbit.”
Winetraub added, “From the very beginning our dreams were to inspire other kids to reach aspirations such as these.” He told The Report that the original idea emerged in 2010, adding, “I was passionate about space since I was a kid. I was building rocket models and was at the International Space University at NASA but when they announced the Google Lunar X Prize, I thought, hey, that would be really cool to join. I was working at IAI here. I thought, hey, let’s go to the moon, but couldn’t get anyone excited about this idea, until one day a mutual friend introduced me to Yariv [Bash] and said you guys are crazy enough to meet each other. Yariv and I were talking and decided to try to build the first…model [which] we could get into space and then one day Yariv brought up the Google Lunar X Prize. We sat with Kfir [Damari] in a bar in Holon and this is where Space IL started.”
When asked by The Report whether SpaceIL will see future deliveries of payloads containing scientific research, Winetraub continued: “The point is to show that a mission like this can be [done by] other companies using standard technology. [To show others] that it can be done with our budget and get to the moon [is pretty extraordinary]. In terms of space missions it’s very cheap so my hope is that this would create a lot of groups who will think hey, maybe we can do it cheaper, maybe we can do it faster, maybe one day we will have many more spaceships on the moon, even on Mars.”
When asked whether the spacecraft is cheaper since it uses less fuel and is launched off a payload, he added: “Sharing the launch is one of the big aspects, fuel is very expensive but also the launcher itself. It’s composed of fine machinery and it needs to be very precise. The fact that we can share the cost with someone else reduces the cost significantly but we cannot launch it in a direct trajectory anymore. Even the smallest spaceship ever built will need to land somehow. When we think about miniaturization, everything is smaller today, we can make spaceships smaller, we can build much more of it and cheaper.”
This feat is no simple task, launching a spacecraft and engineering it to reach a specific spot at a certain speed and from a certain distance is difficult, but Ephi said: “If we need to reach a target square that is 500 by 100 meters with a distance of 400,000 km in order for the spacecraft to land on the moon, we need to engineer that precisely so it reaches that kind of target. Those kinds of forecasts of those calculations of those proportions are nearly impossible.” He added that IAI sent a probe to Venus two years ago, which was very successful but was many years in the making.
The module was originally designed to hop 400 meters over the Earth’s surface, but was later reformed and a system was developed that will enable the spacecraft to have enough space to land on the moon’s surface. He added that full-scale development for the project began in 2015, and noted that the total cost will not exceed $100 million. When asked about the future of space travel for IAI, he quipped “maybe the future would be Mars or maybe other entities.”
Damari added: “Maybe the competition was what led us to starting SpaceIL, but our biggest mission is to make Israel the fourth nation to land on the moon. Even greater than that I’d say would be the educational impact we hope to have on kids, to show future scientists and engineers that it can be fun and exciting. Instead of building a for profit start-up we built something much bigger that connects everyone in Israel.”
A main problem of launching satellites from Israel he noted was the difficulty due to Israel’s location near the ocean, which is in the opposite direction of the rotation of the Earth. This makes launching heavy satellites much more complex. Damari added that this “is why we have developed the ability to make the smallest satellites in the world.” Although this project received government funding, that only accounted for around 10% of the fees. The other 80% was largely from private donors, in particular Kahn, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, and Canadian immigrant Sylvan Adams.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the “time capsule,” which is inside the spacecraft. It includes many national, historical and modern symbols of Israeli culture, such as the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Israeli songs and the prayer of “Tefilat Haderech,” the Bible, the flag, maps of the State of Israel, the national anthem, as well as pictures drawn by Israeli children – who were asked to contribute drawings based on what science means to them and what would they want to do when they get to the moon. So far one million children have contributed to the nationwide project. This data along with dictionaries and other literature is stored on three special disks – which are similar to CD-ROMS, but are equipped to survive the harsh conditions in space – and can be unloaded from the spacecraft if need be. The disks will also contain hundreds of digital files with details of the association, the spacecraft, and the project.
The plan – for now – is to leave the spacecraft on the moon indefinitely, and as a relic for future generations.
This is the smallest lunar module to date. Although its engineering and production have cost at least $95 million dollars, it is still far less than other similar lunar missions have cost other countries, such as NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft, which cost close to $9.9 billion in 1969. The spacecraft weighs 600 kg and is 1.5 meters high, 2 meters wide and has a maximum speed of 10 km per second (around 36,000 km per hour).
After its launch, it will disengage from the launching rocket and when it reaches a distance of 60,000 km from Earth, it will begin to orbit the Earth until it is ready to approach the moon. The speed of the spacecraft will be determined by the speed of its lunar orbit. The entire mission will take around two months, from launch to landing on April 11, 2019.
SpaceIL and the IAI announced that they will embark on a scientific collaboration with NASA and the Weizmann Institute of Science, which will enable them to improve the tracking and communication with the module before, during and after landing. A mere few weeks ago, a laser reflector was installed on the SpaceIL module that will enable NASA to locate it on the moon. It will also measure the magnetic field at the landing site.
The spacecraft will orbit the Earth in elliptical orbits and will travel 6.5 million km, the longest distance ever traveled to the moon. When it enters the lunar orbit – about 10 days before landing – it will orbit the moon until the landing sequence is initiated.
Once it lands, it will hold the Israeli flag, photograph the landing site and provide a “selfie” to ensure that its landing has been successful. Beresheet will measure the moon’s magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute. NASA is also participating in the mission with the Israel Space Agency, in which it will use a laser retroreflector to pinpoint the spacecraft’s location for scientists on Earth and will assist in communication as well.
“All I can say is, ‘Farewell, Beresheet!’ Our hopes are with you,” said Kahn. “Make us proud!”