Israeli Lunar Lander Fails in Last Moments

Israeli Lunar Lander Fails in Last Moments

The Israeli Beresheet lunar lander failed to make a soft landing on the Moon today, but the effort, led by Israeli non-profit SpaceIL, is being widely hailed nonetheless.  Although it did not win the $20 million Google Lunar X-Prize, the X-Prize Foundation decided to award the SpaceIL team $1 million anyway in recognition of reaching lunar orbit.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin were among those praising SpaceIL and encouraging them to keep trying.

Beresheet means “in the beginning” in Hebrew.  The small lunar lander — 1.5 meters tall, 2.4 meters across, with a mass of 160 kilograms unfueled — was built by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI).  It was launched as a rideshare on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 21 EST and then slowly made its way to the Moon using its own propulsion.  When it entered lunar orbit on April 4, Israel became the seventh country to achieve that feat.

SpaceIL’s Beresheet lunar lander. Credit: SpaceIL website.

SpaceIL livestreamed the landing and a large audience was on hand in person, including Netanyahu.  As descent commenced, Beresheet transmitted a photo of the lunar surface from an altitude of 22 kilometers.

Anticipation mounted, but as the spacecraft neared the surface, intermittent problems developed with telemetry and the main engine.  In the end, Beresheet crashed into the surface after its main engine failed.

Its intended landing site was Mare Serenitatis. If it had soft landed as planned, Israel would have been the fourth country to do so (after the Soviet Union, United States, and China) and SpaceIL would have been the first non-governmental entity to land on another celestial body. As it is, Beresheet did “land,” but likely not intact.

IAI general manager Opher Doron conveyed the disappointing news to the group assembled in the room and on the Internet.  Netanyahu offered words of encouragement: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.”

Morris Kahn, president of SpaceIL, congratulated the team on the “tremendous” achievement of getting as far as they did.  Kahn is one of several wealthy philanthropists who provided most of the $100 million for the mission.

In October, Bridenstine signed an agreement with the Israeli Space Agency to include a NASA laser retroreflector on the spacecraft.  Today, he also praised the SpaceIL team.

In an emailed statement he added: “Every attempt to reach new milestones holds opportunities for us to learn, adjust and progress. I have no doubt that Israel and SpaceIL will continue to explore and I look forward to celebrating their future achievements.”

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two humans to set foot on Moon, also offered encouragement.

SpaceIL began its lunar lander effort as part of the Google Lunar X-Prize contest, which ended in 2018 after no one won the $20 million Grand Prize despite years of extending the deadline.  However, the XPrize Foundation, announced that, inspired by SpaceIL, it is beginning a new $1 million “Moonshot Award” for an XPrize team that demonstrates a technological feat outside of an XPrize competition.

Even though the landing was not a success, the foundation tweeted (@xprize) today that SpaceIL will win that prize “in honor of their achievements and their milestone as the first privately funded entity to orbit the Moon.”

Two U.S. teams from the Google Lunar X-Prize contest also continue to pursue their dreams.  Moon Express and Astrobotic are now competing to win Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) contracts from NASA to deliver NASA payloads to the lunar surface.

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