Israeli Lunar Lander on Its Way to the Moon

Israeli Lunar Lander on Its Way to the Moon

A robotic lunar lander built by an Israeli non-profit, SpaceIL, is on its way to the Moon tonight.  Launched as a rideshare on a SpaceX launch of an Indonesian communications satellite, Beresheet will take about two months to reach lunar orbit and then descend to a soft landing on the Moon.  It is Israel’s first attempt at lunar exploration and carries a NASA laser retroreflector as part of its payload.  NASA also announced today 12 experiments it has ready to fly on U.S. private sector spacecraft as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

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.

NASA signed an agreement with the Israeli Space Agency in October to include a laser retroreflector on Beresheet and aid in tracking the spacecraft with the Deep Space Network.  In return, SpaceIL will share data from SpaceIL’s lunar magnetometer instrument. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will also attempt to make scientific measurements of Beresheet once it is on the surface.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine congratulated SpaceIL on the successful beginning of the mission.

Congratulations to SpaceIL and the Israel Space Agency. This is a historic step for all nations and commercial space as we look to extend our collaborations beyond low-Earth orbit and on to the Moon.

In July, I was in Israel and was very impressed with their commitment to expanding their role in the world’s space community. As we better understand Israel’s capabilities and the innovative work of their private industry, we know they’ll be an even stronger international partner in the future, one vital to the success of extending commercial space to the Moon and eventually on to Mars and beyond. There are terrific opportunities awaiting Israel and all of us in advancing the space frontier. — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Beresheet, which means “in the beginning” in Hebrew, was launched into a highly elliptical Earth orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.  It has its own propulsion system that will be used to gradually increase the apogee over the next two months until it can be captured into lunar orbit in early April.  Landing in Mare Serenitatis is scheduled for April 11, 2019.

Credit: SpaceIL

SpaceIL confirmed that the spacecraft is in good shape and its landing legs deployed as planned shortly after launch.

If all goes according to plan, Israel will be the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the Moon, following the Soviet Union, the United States, and China.

Two former U.S. Google Lunar X-Prize teams have also continued their efforts, Moon Express and Astrobotic.  They now are two of nine companies selected by NASA for Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts to deliver NASA instruments to the lunar surface.  NASA will purchase services from the companies via Task Orders as part of the CLPS public-private partnership initiative.

Just last week, Bridenstine, Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s science programs, and Bill Gerstenmaier, in charge of NASA’s human exploration program, held events to highlight NASA’s determination to move fast, but sustainably, with lunar exploration in cooperation with international and commercial partners.

Zurbuchen said NASA will be ready with payloads as soon as the companies are ready to launch and land them on the Moon, hopefully by the end of this year.  “If we have a ride in late 2019, we have instruments to fly.”

As promised, today he released a list of 12 NASA-developed science and technology payloads that are awaiting those rides:

  • Three resource prospecting instruments have been selected to fly:
    • The Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System is an imaging spectrometer that will measure surface composition.
    • The Neutron Spectrometer System and Advanced Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface are neutron spectrometers that will measure hydrogen abundance.
  • The Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer for Lunar Surface Volatiles instrument is an ion-trap mass spectrometer that will measure volatile contents in the surface and lunar exosphere.
  • A magnetometer will measure the surface magnetic field.
  • The Low-frequency Radio Observations from the Near Side Lunar Surface instrument, a radio science instrument, will measure the photoelectron sheath density near the surface.
  • Three instruments will acquire critical information during entry, descent and landing on the lunar surface, which will inform the design of future landers including the next human lunar lander.
  • The Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies will image the interaction between the lander engine plume as it hits the lunar surface.
  • The Surface and Exosphere Alterations by Landers payload will monitor how the landing affects the lunar exosphere.
  • The Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing payload will make precise velocity and ranging measurements during the descent that will help develop precision landing capabilities for future landers.
  • The Solar Cell Demonstration Platform for Enabling Long-Term Lunar Surface Power will demonstrate advanced solar arrays for longer mission duration.
  • The Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator will demonstrate a navigational beacon to assist with geolocation for lunar orbiting spacecraft and landers.

If successful, however, it will be SpaceIL that goes down in the history books as the first non-governmental entity to land on the Moon.  Its major donors include Morris Kahn, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family foundation, Sylvan Adams, Harvey and Gloria Kaylie, and the Parasol Trust Foundation.  The Israeli government contributed about $2 million of its $90 million pricetag according to The Verge.

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