The Israeli Beresheet spacecraft has crashed into the Moon. The craft, whose name is Hebrew for “in the beginning” made its descent to the Moon but failed to stick its landing. If it had been successful, it would have put Israel in elite company, and made them only the fourth country to have a soft landing on the Moon, joining the USA, China, and the former Soviet Union.
Even without a successful landing, the Beresheet mission is still an amazing story, and will form part of space travel history. That’s because the craft itself was largely the result of the work of private citizens. The governmental Israel Aerospace Industries played an important role in the mission, but it was designed and driven forward by SpaceIL.
The non-profit SpaceIL designed and built the craft with $100 million US donated almost entirely by private donors. SpaceIL was started by three young engineers in 2011 to compete for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. Beresheet was one of the finalists for the prize, but the contest ended before anyone could win the prize.
We may be getting accustomed to successful space missions, but they’re still a major feat, requiring the expertise of thousands of people. And some luck. In this case, Israel and SpaceIL got very close to the ultimate goal, but couldn’t quite stick the landing.
Beresheet was descending nicely, until problems started cropping up. They lost contact with the lander and re-established it. Engines failed, and then came back online. But ultimately, the lander couldn’t arrest its descent, and hit the surface.
The unmanned Beresheet lander would have been the smallest spacecraft to ever land on the Moon. It weighed 585 kg (1290 lbs.) when it was launched, but much of that was fuel, and its descent weight was about 150 kg (330 lbs.) when it approacehd the lunar surface.
In a lot of ways the mission was still a success. Even without a successful landing, it still met its goal of promoting STEM education among young Israelis.
More detail will surface in the coming days about what exactly happened during the descent. But whatever happened, the three engineers behind it can certainly hold their heads high.