On Friday, a tiny spacecraft attempted to land on the Moon. It’s wasn’t from NASA or Roscosmos, or even China’s CNSA. The Beresheet Moon lander came from a small, not-for-profit company called SpaceIL, based in the tiny Middle Eastern country of Israel.
SpaceIL was founded in an attempt to win Google’s Lunar X Prize, a series of competitions designed to get the first private (not government run) space lander. Unfortunately, the competition expired in 2018 with no winner, but SpaceIL decided to keep working on the Beresheet mission anyway.
Getting a lift
One of the trickiest bits of any Moon mission is actually getting there. The Moon is almost 400 000 kilometres from Earth! NASA’s Apollo missions rode on the Saturn V, still the most powerful rocket ever used. Beresheet took a much cheaper path to space. It hitched a ride, sharing a rocket with a much larger communications satellite, Nusantara Satu.
Luckily, Nusantara Satu was going somewhere similar. Most satellites stay under 1000 kilometres in altitude, but the communications satellite wanted to go to geostationary orbit, 40 000 kilometres up. After an initial boost, the two split up: Nusantara Satu made its orbit a nice circle, and Beresheet kept climbing.
Early on Friday morning, the command was sent and Beresheet started its final approach. Unfortunately, there were problems with the main engine. The last transmission from Beresheet was 149 metres from the surface, and the Moon lander was falling at almost 500 kilometres per hour.
It’s an amazing achievement to get so close to landing. The X Prize group who spurred SpaceIL into action agree – they plan to award the team with a one million dollar prize for getting so close to a successful landing. So congratulations, SpaceIL, for being the seventh organisation to orbit the Moon, and good luck on the next mission!
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