The Israeli-built Beresheet lander successfully started orbiting the moon today, marking a crucial step toward next week’s scheduled lunar touchdown.
Today’s maneuver changed the orbit for Beresheet (Hebrew for “In the Beginning”) from a highly elliptical Earth orbit to a highly elliptical lunar orbit. As a result, Israel became the seventh space effort to send a probe circling the moon, and the first such effort backed by private funding. (For what it’s worth, the other space programs include NASA, Russia, China, India, Japan and the European Space Agency.)
Seattle-based Spaceflight and SpaceX played supporting roles in arranging Beresheet’s pre-launch logistics and its delivery to orbit. But the project’s main drivers are SpaceIL, a privately funded engineering team that competed in the Google Lunar X Prize; and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.
Beresheet was launched as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 21, and over the past few weeks it has been regularly fine-tuning its orbit for capture by the moon’s gravitational field. Its final Earth orbit brought the dishwasher-sized probe within 1,060 miles of our planet’s surface, and then ranged 250,000 miles outward to join lunar orbit. A crucial six-minute engine burn facilitated the orbital capture.
“The lunar capture is an historic event in and of itself – but it also joins Israel in a seven-nation club that has entered the moon’s orbit,” SpaceIL’s chairman, Morris Kahn, said in a news release. “A week from today we’ll make more history by landing on the moon, joining three superpowers who have done so. Today I am proud to be an Israeli.”
Kahn, a billionaire entrepreneur who was born in South Africa but made his fortune in Israel, is the principal backer of the nonprofit SpaceIL effort, which has a budget of nearly $100 million. Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other philanthropists have also contributed to SpaceIL.
Although the clock ran out before anyone could win the top award in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, the XPRIZE foundation announced last week that it was setting up a $1 million “Moonshot Award” for XPRIZE teams that demonstrate a technological feat outside the parameters or time frame of a competition. It said the first Moonshot Award would go to SpaceIL if its lunar landing is successful.
Beresheet’s initial 14-hour lunar orbit ranged from 310 to 6,213 miles (500 to 10,000 kilometers) relative to the moon’s surface. Over the next few days, the probe will circularize its orbit at an altitude of 124 miles (200 kilometers) . On April 11 it’s due to make an autonomous landing in Mare Serenitatis, also known as the Sea of Serenity.
The lander is carrying a high-resolution video camera system, a magnetometer to map the moon’s magnetic field and a CD-sized “time capsule” that contains digitized files of children’s drawings, photographs and information about Israeli culture.