Next week, all being well a Falcon 9 rocket will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida carrying a very special payload: a spacecraft built by a Tel Aviv-based company aiming to be the first privately-funded mission to land on the Moon.
The launch follows an announcement, about a year ago, by the non-profit organisation SpaceIL that it intends to fly a small lander to the Moon early in 2019. This is not the first time that a non-governmental organisation has announced plans to send a probe to the Moon, but SpaceIL’s lander had already been built by that time. That was to allow the company to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which Google declared closed in March 2018 with no winner. The company then secured an agreement with Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to “ride-share” on one of its Falcon 9 rockets, thus saving on launch costs that typically amount to $10s of millions. If successful, the landing will mark the first time that a privately-built spacecraft has set down on the Moon’s surface.
For this mission, the SpaceIL lander, named “Beresheet” or “In the Beginning” in Hebrew, and the other payloads, the Indonesian PSN 6 telecommunications satellite and a US government satellite, will initially be released in an egg-shaped orbit around the Earth. The SpaceIL spacecraft will then use its own thrusters to gradually raise its orbit until it crosses the Moon’s, 384,000 km from the Earth. Sometime after entering orbit around the Moon, Beresheet is expected to touch down at a location west of the crater Posidonius on the Sea of Serenity, a vast lava plain located slightly above and to the right of centre of the Moon’s visible disk as seen from the Earth.
Apart from a complement of cameras to record its immediate surroundings, the spacecraft carries an instrument to measure the magnetisation of nearby rocks. In another experiment, an array of mirrors will be used to bounce off laser pulses fired from the ground and ascertain the distance between the Earth and the Moon to a few cm. But by the mere act of successfully landing on the Moon, the mission will have served its primary purpose as a technology demonstrator, to show that Israeli industry possesses the knowhow to safely place an object on the Moon’s surface and to inspire the country’s youth in pursuing careers in STEM subjects.
With the landing phase successfully concluded, the plan is to fire the spacecraft’s thrusters for one last time to hop to another location some 500m away, marking the first use of rocket propulsion for the purpose of moving across the Moon’s surface.
For further information, we refer the reader to the following articles on the Planetary Society blog:
[Update 21 February]: Just a few hours to go until launch..some new information on the mission has become available here. Apparently the plan to hop the spacecraft across the lunar surface once it’s landed has been scrapped. The mission team is focusing on nailing the landing itself..
[Update 22 February]: Launch and spacecraft separation successful. A nice report is available here. It is now up to Beresheet to gradually push itself out towards the Moon, enter orbit and eventually touch down in Mare Serenitatis in a few months’ time.
[Update 31 March]: Beresheet now has a definite date with the Moon! It is expected to enter lunar orbit on Thursday 4th April, at which point it will become the first private spacecraft to do so. The landing itself will be attempted a week later, on 11th April. More details, including pictures taken from the spacecraft, may be found here.
[Update 4 April]: Beresheet is now in orbit around the Moon, a first for a privately-developed mission. Landing is expected in about a week’s time.