Israeli spacecraft crash lands on moon after technical failures

Beresheet travelled through space for seven weeks before crossing into moon’s gravity

A picture taken by the Beresheet spacecraft of the moon’s surface as the craft approaches. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A picture taken by the Beresheet spacecraft of the moon’s surface as the craft approaches. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

Israel’s hopes of becoming only the fourth country to land on the moon have been dashed after the Beresheet spacecraft crash landed on the lunar surface.

“I am sorry to say that our spacecraft did not make it in one piece to the moon,” said Opher Doron, the manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division, but we are the seventh country to make it all the way to the moon. This is a great accomplishment.”

Millions around the world tuned in live on Thursday to watch Beresheet (Genesis in Hebrew), an ambitious project developed by SpaceIL, a privately-funded Israeli non-profit organisation, together with Israel Aerospace Industries, descend to the Moon’s Mare Serenitatis (Sea of Serenity).

Beresheet’s journey took it on a series of ever-widening orbits around the Earth, before being captured by the moon’s gravity and moving into lunar orbit on April 4th, as Israel sought to join the prestigious club of the United States, the former Soviet Union and China in landing a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

But engineers realised that a controlled landing on the moon’s surface would be the biggest challenge.

SpaceIL lost contact with the spacecraft only minutes before it was due to complete the landing after an epic seven-week, 6.5 million-km journey since Beresheet blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on February 22nd.

The spacecraft successfully initiated the landing sequence, but a few kilometres above the moon’s surface the main engine failed, meaning it could not properly brake in time to cushion its landing.

The four-legged craft, about the size of a washing machine, had intended to measure magnetic fields from its landing site, in the first-ever privately funded moon mission.

Mission control

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, fresh from his stunning election victory, was at mission control in the central Israeli town of Yehud, eagerly anticipating what would have been a major achievement for a small nation.

“Write this down, in three years we will get another spacecraft on the moon, and this one will land in one piece,” he said. “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. We’ll try again, and next time we’ll just try it more gently.”

The Beresheet mission was budgeted at €88 million – a fraction of the cost of the rockets launched to the moon by the major powers – and funded by Jewish philanthropists, led by South African-born billionaire Morris Kahn.

Apollo 11 astronaut and the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, on Thursday tweeted his condolences.

“Never lose hope your hard work, team work, and innovation is inspiring to all!” he said.

SpaceIL was founded eight years ago to compete for the Google Lunar XPrize. The contest offered €17.6 million for the first privately funded team to launch a spacecraft to the moon, transmit high-definition video and travel 500 metres in any direction.

The XPrize was cancelled in January 2018 but the Israeli team decided to continue its pursuit of the moon landing.