Planetary Sciences News

First Privately Developed Lander En Route to the Moon

The lander, built by an Israeli company, will survive on the surface for just a few days. It will capture magnetic field data and conduct an experiment with a lunar orbiter.

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Last week, the Israeli company SpaceIL launched a lander toward the Moon. Called Beresheet, it will be the first privately developed spacecraft to attempt a landing on the Moon and, if successful, will make Israel the fourth Moon-faring country after the United States, Russia, and China.

Beresheet, Hebrew for “in the beginning” and the name of the biblical book of Genesis, is scheduled to land on the Moon on 11 April. It will touch down in Mare Serenitatis, or Sea of Serenity, a basaltic lava plain in the northeastern quadrant of the Moon’s nearside. The lander carries an imager and a magnetometer to take data before, during, and after touchdown.

A Short but Impactful Mission

SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2011 in an attempt to win Google’s Lunar XPRIZE. After the contest ended last year with no winner, SpaceIL partnered with the Israel Space Agency and government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries to finish building the lander. SpaceIL is also collaborating with NASA to conduct a laser retroreflector experiment in concert with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter after Beresheet lands.

Beresheet is currently in an elliptical orbit around Earth that is gradually expanding to encompass the Moon. It will then transfer to a gradually contracting lunar orbit around 4 April.

“The Beresheet lander is a dual-purpose spacecraft,” Yoav Landsman, senior systems engineer for SpaceIL, told Eos. “On its first mission it’s a spacecraft and orbiter, designed to travel from Earth orbit to a lunar orbit, where it can stay for a long time. On its second mission it becomes a lander.”

“Keeping the same configuration for two entirely different types of missions is an engineering challenge,” Landsman said, especially given that the mission cost only about US$100 million. In comparison, NASA’s Mars InSight lander cost around US$830 million. The type and amount of fuel the craft carries, its communication system, its orbital mechanics, and its electrical power system were tailored for the needs of a low-cost and lightweight mission, he explained.

The mission team expects the lander to withstand noontime lunar temperatures—around 100°C—for only 2 days after touchdown. While active, the craft will take measurements of the magnetic fields of surface rocks to see whether the Moon may have once had a liquid metal core that could have magnetized the rocks.

Bumps on the Road to the Moon

Beresheet launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 22 February. The craft has experienced issues with its navigational star tracker and missed a planned orbit adjustment on Tuesday morning because an onboard computer reset unexpectedly. Despite these glitches, the SpaceIL team says that the mission is still on track.

“At this time, the spacecraft’s systems are working well, except for the known problem in the star tracker,” SpaceIL representatives said in a statement on their Facebook page. “Communication between the control center and the spacecraft remains as planned, and Beresheet continues its previous orbit until the next maneuver.”

NASA, which plans to partner with private space companies in its renewed efforts to go to the Moon, has expressed its support for the mission. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement, “This is a historic step for all nations and commercial space as we look to extend our collaborations beyond low-Earth orbit and on to the Moon.”

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer

Citation: Cartier, K. M. S. (2019), First privately developed lander en route to the Moon, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO117409. Published on 28 February 2019.
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