A tiny robotic spacecraft from Israel just inserted itself into orbit around the Moon in a critical maneuver that sets the vehicle up for a landing on the lunar surface next week. If the touchdown is successful, the spacecraft will become the first private vehicle to land on the Moon.
The lander now speeding around the Moon is Beresheet, which is built and operated by Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL. On February 21st, Beresheet launched to space on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which deployed the lander in a wide orbit around Earth. Since then, the spacecraft has been periodically igniting its engine and stretching its orbital path around the planet, sending itself toward the Moon. So far, the lander has traveled more than 3.4 million miles through space and completed around 12 orbits. It’s also taken a few snapshots of Earth and itself along the way.
Just after 10:15AM ET this morning, Beresheet ignited its main engine again in order to slow the vehicle down so that it could be captured by the Moon’s gravity. Now, the lander is in an elliptical orbit around the Moon, a path that takes the spacecraft between 310 and 6,213 miles above the lunar surface. Beresheet won’t linger in this orbit for long, though. Over the next week, the lander will ignite its engine a few times to make its orbit around the Moon more circular, descending to 124 miles above the lunar surface. On April 11th, Beresheet will ignite its engine again to take itself out of the Moon’s orbit and land.
Today’s maneuver was a critical one for SpaceIL. If the lander hadn’t slowed down enough, it might have missed the Moon’s orbit altogether, and it may have even left the Earth-Moon system. That would have effectively ended the mission, as there was no way to get the vehicle back on track.
A successful landing next week will mark a major first for space travel because of the way Beresheet was developed. Even now, the fact that it’s orbiting the Moon is a major first for spaceflight history. Up until now, only three superpowers — the US, Russia, and China — have successfully landed vehicles intact on the Moon. Beresheet was created with mostly private funding. The team had an overall budget of just $90 million, but only $2 million of that came from the Israeli government; the rest came from private investors.
Such an achievement was the ultimate goal of the now-dead Google Lunar X Prize competition, a global race to put the first private vehicle on the Moon and lower the cost of deep space travel. SpaceIL was one of five finalists in that competition, which ended without a winner when none of the teams launched before the X Prize’s deadline of March 31st, 2018. If anyone had made it to the Moon by the deadline, X Prize would have awarded them a grand prize of $20 million.
However, SpaceIL is poised to receive some money if it makes it to the Moon. The X Prize Foundation announced last week that it will give the Israeli nonprofit a surprise $1 million award if Beresheet successfully touches down on the surface in one piece, upping the stakes slightly for the landing.
Following its touchdown next week, the lander is tasked with taking photographs of the lunar surface, and it’ll even take a selfie. It is also carrying a scientific instrument that will measure the magnetic field in the area of the landing site. Beresheet’s target touchdown site is in a spot known as the Sea of Serenity, which is supposed to have “magnetic anomalies,” according to SpaceIL. The nonprofit plans to share this magnetic information with NASA. In exchange, the space agency contributed a special laser reflector to Beresheet, making it easier for SpaceIL to detect the vehicle in space. NASA also plans to help SpaceIL communicate with Beresheet, and it will confirm its presence on the Moon after landing using the agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Beresheet is also carrying some precious cargo that doesn’t serve a scientific purpose. On board the lander is a mini “time capsule,” a digital file with details about the spacecraft and the team that built it. Additionally, an organization known as the Arch Foundation included its first installment of a “lunar library” on the lander, tiny nickel discs that contain thousands of pages of text and images. The Arch Foundation decided to include numerous pages from Wikipedia as well as PDFs from books. And, of course, SpaceIL put a flag of Israel on the lander, and it will take a picture of it post-landing.