Beresheet: Down in a Blaze of Glory

Back in February, we published an article about developments in Israel’s private space program. ‘Sending ‘Selfies’ from the Moon’ turned out to spark a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of readers for the renewed interest in the cold and lonely satellite we first visited in 1969. Beresheet, which as you’ll recall means ‘Genesis’ in Hebrew, was the result of seven years of design and development by a small start-up based in Tel Aviv. SpaceIL, a non-profit organization, was founded when three individuals – a systems engineer with a background in the NASA International Space University, a self-proclaimed geek with a passion for cyber security, and a computer engineer – came together around a social media appeal for partners in development, with a view to bagging the prestigious Google Lunar X Prize. On February 22, 2019, Beresheet launched from Cape Canaveral, FL, on a six week journey to the moon as a secondary payload atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The journey of around 240,000 miles involved a series of complex maneuvers – ‘engine burns’ – to finally enter into the moon’s orbit before a descent that allowed the craft to relay spectacular images of the lunar surface. Back at mission control, SpaceIL’s team of engineers watched anxiously as Beresheet maintained its descent, until disaster struck, in the form of a unit malfunction. According to an article in The Jerusalem Post, a ‘command intended to correct a malfunction in one of the Beresheet spacecraft’s inertial measurement unit led to a chain of events that turned off its main engine during landing.’(1) Despite frantic attempts to restart the engines, a crash landing on the moon’s surface was unavoidable and the craft ultimately perished.

Analysis of the causes of Beresheet’s failure at this final, yet critical, moment is described by SpaceIL’s CEO Dr. Ido Anteby as ‘part of our culture of learning, reaching conclusions, and transparency.’(2) He added that the investigation ‘focuses only on understanding the facts and the sequence of events […] based on the telemetry of the craft.’(3)

And fortunately for our pursuit of extraterrestrial understanding, science, and adventure, SpaceIL’s team will not be deterred by this setback. Recognizing their immense achievement as one of only seven nations to have orbited the moon, SpaceIL’s chairman Morris Kahn announced that Beresheet’s legacy will not be confined to the dazzling and mesmerizing images relayed to Earth during its final moments.(4) Having proven that a privately-funded initiative can develop a craft that not only successfully escapes the bounds of our own gravitational pull but can also make it to the moon, Kahn emphasized that the non-profit intends to push forward with a further iteration of the program: Beresheet 2.0, which is in the early stages of planning with Kahn as the lead donor in its financing.

The original mission cost around $98million which is pocket change in comparison with similar government-sponsored missions here in the U.S., Russia, or China but had to be raised through private donation and philanthropy. However, in a surprise move following the crash, Anousheh Ansari, chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, announced that the prize of $1 million would, after all, be awarded to SpaceIL for having come so very close to a lunar landing and for stimulating so much interest in the development of the emerging lunar transportation industry. 

All of which is excellent news for those among us with an armchair interest – or more – in space science and exploration. Given the enthusiasm and drive of the SpaceIL team and the national significance of the program for Israel, we’re sure that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the next generation of small craft sending ‘selfies’ from the moon. And we will, of course, bring you updates as we get them!

To all involved in SpaceIL’s  initiative to further our understanding of space science and to dream of a future beyond the bounds of this, our home planet, we wish you the very best for the future and Beresheet 2.0!

References:

  1. https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/SpaceIL-reveals-preliminary-reasons-behind-Beresheet-crash-587117
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/israels-beresheet-moon-lander-last-photo-before-crash

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