Israeli moon lander prepared for launch

The completed SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander is pictured with its solar panels attached. Credit: SpaceIL

The privately-funded Israeli Beresheet lunar lander is ready for its historic mission to the moon, aiming to become the first space probe to land on another planetary body without government funding.

Funded by philanthropists and donors, the Beresheet lunar lander is set for launch Feb. 21 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A non-profit group named SpaceIL spearheaded the project.

“This is going to be the first private interplanetary mission that’s going to go to the moon,” said Yonatan Winetraub, a co-founder of SpaceIL, which had its origin in a brainstorming meeting in a Tel Aviv bar. “This is a big milestone. This is going to be the first time that it’s not going to be a superpower that’s going to go to the moon. This is a huge step for Israel.

“Until today, three superpowers have soft landed on the moon — the United States, the Soviet Union and recently, China,” Winetraub said in a news conference Wednesday night in Orlando. “And (we) thought it’s about time for a change. We want to get little Israel all the way to the moon. This is the purpose of SpaceIL.”

Beresheet, which means “genesis” or “in the beginning” in Hebrew, will attempt landing on the moon April 11, targeting a propulsive touchdown on four legs in the Mare Serenitatis region in the moon’s northern hemisphere.

The robotic lander, made up of four legs, avionics, computers and thrusters, will take a circuitous route to the moon. Covered in gold insulation, nearly three-quarters of the spacecraft’s 1,290-pound (585-kilogram) launch mass is propellant.

The hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants will feed a 100-pound-thrust main engine adapted from communications satellite buses, along with eight control jets to keep the Beresheet lander properly pointed.

About a half-hour after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, the Falcon 9 rocket will release the Beresheet lander into an egg-shaped orbit ranging more than 37,000 miles (60,000 kilometers) above Earth. A series of maneuvers will gradually raise the craft’s orbit to reach the moon’s distance nearly a quarter-million miles (400,000 kilometers) away.

A critical capture maneuver April 4 will allow Beresheet to swing into an elliptical orbit around the moon, setting up for the landing scheduled for April 11.

“Israel is a very small country, as small as New Jersey, and we’re shooting for the moon,” said Yigal Harel, head of SpaceIL’s spacecraft development team. “It’s the first time a small country has aimed to reach the moon and land safely. We are the first non-governmental mission to the moon, and we’re the first ever moon mission to use a commercial launch, which is very unique.”

Originally conceived as a competitor for the Google Lunar X Prize, the SpaceIL lunar lander was manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries, an Israeli defense contractor, and delivered to Cape Canaveral in January for the rideshare launch on the Falcon 9 rocket.

The Google Lunar X Prize, which promised a multimillion-dollar cash payout to the first team that put a privately-funded spacecraft on the moon, ended last year without a winner.

Morris Kahn, an Israeli billionaire, put $40 million of his fortune toward the mission, and serves as SpaceIL’s president. Other donors include Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, a casino and resort magnate who lives in Las Vegas, and Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli businessman.

The financial backers decided to keep SpaceIL going after the Google Lunar X Prize ended.

“We have a vision to show off Israel’s best qualities to the entire world,” Adams said Wednesday. “Tiny Israel, tiny, tiny Israel, is about to become the fourth nation to land on the moon. And this is a remarkable thing, because we continue to demonstrate our ability to punch far, far, far above our weight, and to show off our skills, our innovation, our creativity in tackling any difficult problem that could possibly exist.”

“We’ve been at it for six, seven, or eight years low-key, and for about four years at full rate,” said Opher Doron, general manager of IAI’s space division. “That’s what it took to develop the spacecraft. So it’s a new business model, and it’s a totally new way of getting to the moon.”

Because of the project’s limited budget — a fraction of the cost of government-funded lunar landers — the Israeli team had to adapt technology designed for other purposes to the moon mission. For example, the main thruster on the lander is an off-the-shelf engine typically used to adjust the orbits of large communications satellites.

The Beresheet mission will be deployed into an elliptical orbit around the Earth by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, then use its own engine to raise its altitude over the course of several weeks before reaching the moon April 4. Landing is scheduled for April 11. Credit: SpaceIL

The engine can’t be throttled, so it will fire in short bursts — as needed — to control the lander’s descent rate, before shutting off around 16 feet (5 meters) above the moon, allowing the probe to fall to the surface.

“It’s extremely exciting, and quite risky,” Doron said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “There’s no guarantee of success. There never is in space, but there’s even less so in this case. But we’ve done a lot of testing, a lot of engineering, and now we’ll be doing a lot of praying.

“We have to live in space for a month-and-a-half without redundancies,” Doron said. “That’s never trivial, when we have so many new systems on-board. But the riskiest part is the lunar capture, and by far the riskiest is the landing itself. We’ll be doing more than a week in lunar orbit. We will raise our apogee until we get to the distance of the moon, and we have to time that so that when the moon is crossing our plane, that’s when we get there. We have to time our orbit-raising maneuvers so that when the moon is at that spot, we get there as well.”

“What we are trying to do here is take $100 million and put a few kilograms on the moon, but we are doing it at a certain level of reliability, which we currently don’t know,” Harel said. “For sure, it’s not 100 percent. This mission is very, very ambitious.”

“I think it’s an extraordinary success right where we stand right now,” Doron said. “We have designed and built and shipped a spacecraft ready to launch on the way to the moon. As someone from NASA told me, even if we don’t make it, we’ll be the first ones to figure out what went wrong and try to fix it.”

If the touchdown is successful, Beresheet will collect data on the magnetic field at the landing site. NASA also provided a laser reflector on the spacecraft, which scientists will use to determine the exact distance to the moon. The U.S. space agency is also providing communications and tracking support to the mission.

The German space agency — DLR — also helped the SpaceIL team with drop testing to simulate the conditions the spacecraft will encounter at the moment of landing.

SpaceIL co-founders Kfir Damari, Yonatan Winetraub and Yariv Bash insert a time capsule on the Beresheet spacecraft. The time capsule includes three discs with digital files that will remain on the moon with the spacecraft. The discs include details on the spacecraft and the crew that built it, and national and cultural symbols, such as the Israeli flag, the Israeli national anthem, and the Bible. Credit: SpaceIL

But Doron said the Beresheet spacecraft is largely home-grown, with Israeli designers, builders and operators.

“When you zoom out a little bit and you remember what the Google Lunar X Prize — rest in peace — wanted to achieve, we’ve actually achieved it,” Doron said. “We’re actually managing to do what they wanted to show was possible, a non-government mission to get to the moon.”

The Israeli-built lander is designed to function at least two days on the moon, enough time to beam back basic scientific data and a series of panoramic images, plus a selfie. The laser reflector is a passive payload, and will be useful long after the spacecraft stops operating.

Beresheet also aims to deliver a time capsule to the moon with the Israeli flag, and digital copies of the Israeli national anthem, the Bible, and other national and cultural artifacts.

“People say during the ’60s, Russia and the United States landed on the moon, so what’s the big deal now?” Harel said. “The tooling of development changed a lot, but the physics of nature is still very harsh and very, very complex, and to take something so tiny and so fragile and to put it on the moon is a very complex and ambitious mission. So we have redundancy only on things we decided must have it, but most of the systems have no redundancy.

“We need to be creative, when we encounter problems — and for sure, we will encounter problems because this is the space arena — we will have to send commands to the software of the spacecraft to do things differently.”

IAI and OHB, a German aerospace company, signed an agreement in January that could build on the Beresheet mission by constructing future commercial landers to ferry scientific instruments and other payloads to the moon’s surface for the European Space Agency.

Artist’s concept of the Beresheet lunar lander on the moon’s surface. Credit: SpaceIL

According to Doron, IAI is also in discussions with U.S. companies to use Israeli technology developed for the Beresheet project on commercial lunar landers for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. NASA selected nine companies last year to be eligible to compete for contracts to transport science and tech demo payloads to the lunar surface.

SpaceIL and IAI were not among the winners, but Israeli engineers could partner with U.S. firms to meet NASA’s requirements.

“There may be opportunities in the United States,” Doron said. “There’s the CLPS program in the United States, and we are talking to different U.S. companies about how we can join in that.”

The Indonesian Nusantara Satu communications satellite, built by SSL in Palo Alto, California, will be the primary passenger on the Falcon 9 launcher when it blasts off during a 32-minute window opening at 8:45 p.m. EST Thursday (0145 GMT Friday). A U.S. Air Force satellite, known as S5, will also ride piggyback on an adapter attached to Nusantara Satu.

The entire spacecraft stack weighs about 10,700 pounds (4,850 kilograms), according to SSL, which sold some of capacity it purchased on the Falcon 9 rocket to Spaceflight, a company that offers rideshare launch opportunities to small satellites that do not require the full capability of a large rocket.

Spaceflight booked contracts with SpaceIL and the U.S. Air Force to give the Beresheet lander and the S5 space surveillance satellite rides into space. The launch marks the first rideshare to a geostationary-type orbit for Spaceflight, which until now has launch smallsats into low Earth orbits a few hundred miles above the planet.

While Beresheet will separate from the multi-satellite stack Falcon 9 soon after launch, the Air Force’s S5 smallsat will remain attached to the Nusantara Satu spacecraft until it reaches an orbit near geostationary altitude, where S5 will deploy to begin its mission.

Nusantara Satu will then continue to its final orbital position in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 35,000 kilometers) over the equator to begin a 15-year telecommunications mission over Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

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