Beresheet snaps a selfie just before its main engine fails, about 20 kilometers above the moon’s surface.

Space IL and Israel Aerospace Industries

Israeli spacecraft crashes during attempted moon landing

*Update, 11 April, 4 p.m.: Beresheet’s end came too quickly. Designed to survive only a few days on the lunar surface, the Israeli private spacecraft instead crashed during its attempted soft landing today on the moon. Things went awry in the control room near the end of its landing sequence as the SpaceIL team saw the spacecraft’s main engine fail and then lost communication with Beresheet. “We have had a failure in the spacecraft. We have unfortunately not managed to land successfully,” said Opher Doron, general manager of the space division of Israel Aerospace Industries, which built the lander for SpaceIL. Although Beresheet, which means “in the beginning” in Hebrew (or “genesis” in Greek), was the first privately built spacecraft to attempt a lunar landing, it is unlikely to be the last. Our preview from 28 March:

For Israel, the planned 11 April touchdown of the Beresheet moon lander will be a moment of national pride, as it becomes the fourth country to put a spacecraft on the moon, after Russia, the United States, and China. But for many, the feat will mark a different milestone: If successful, Beresheet would be the first privately built spacecraft to reach the lunar surface, at a fraction of the cost of a government mission. By pioneering a cutrate route to the moon, the landing could ensure that "the world's lunar scientists are going to be busy for many years to come," says John Thornton, CEO of rival space company Astrobotic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which plans to launch its first lunar mission in early 2021.

The $100 million effort by SpaceIL of Tel Aviv, Israel, is more than a display of commercial space prowess. Beresheet, which is now en route to the moon, carries two scientific instruments, including a magnetometer that could shed light on when and how the moon acquired its curious magnetic field. The mission is also a legacy of the Google Lunar XPrize, a competition launched in 2007 for companies to land on the moon, travel 500 meters, and send video of their achievement. The race ended last year without awarding its $20 million main prize. But several of the prize teams are still at work, competing to carry NASA and commercial payloads to the lunar surface (see table, below). "The XPrize has been effective in its goals, and SpaceIL is a shining example," says Bob Richards, CEO of Moon Express in Cape Canaveral, Florida, another fledgling space company and XPrize finalist.

The vision of the three young engineers who founded SpaceIL was simply to win the XPrize and plant the Israeli flag. With funding from several philanthropists as well as the Israel Space Agency, the team planned to meet the prize's traveling requirement not with a rover, but by restarting the lander's rocket engine and hopping the necessary distance.

Moon-bound

Companies founded to vie for the Google Lunar XPrize are planning a flotilla of lunar landers. Some companies will bid to carry payloads for NASA.

COMPANYLUNAR LANDINGSCIENCE PAYLOADSNASA PAYLOAD BIDDER
SpaceIL2019Magnetometer and retroreflectorNo
Moon Express2020Optical telescope and retroreflectorYes
TeamIndus2020Ultraviolet telescope, worm growth experiment, and retroreflectorAs part of Orbit Beyond
PTScientists2020TBANo
Synergy Moon2020TBANo
Astrobotic2021TBAYes
Hakuto2021TBATeamed with Draper

But Oded Aharonson, a planetary scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, saw an unmissable opportunity; he persuaded the team to include scientific instruments and signed on as the mission scientist. In addition to its magnetometer, Beresheet ("genesis" in Hebrew), which was launched on 22 February from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, now carries a retroreflector. The device can reflect a laser beam sent from Earth so scientists can accurately measure the moon's distance, both to better understand Earth-moon dynamics and to carry out tests of gravity. NASA and Russian landers set up several such reflectors, but more will improve the system's accuracy.

Bigger questions ride on the magnetometer, which will measure the moon's magnetic field as the probe enters lunar orbit and descends to a landing in Mare Serenitatis, an ancient plain of lava. "It's a big deal," says lunar scientist Sonia Tikoo of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. "We've never had this level of resolution on another body before." The moon doesn't have an overall dipole magnetic field like Earth's, but coarse satellite measurements together with rock samples brought back by the Apollo missions have shown a patchy field is embedded in its crust.

Beresheet is taking a slow, thrifty route to the moon. Over several weeks, it has made increasingly elongated Earth orbits, which will allow lunar gravity to capture it in early April.

SPACEIL AND IAI

How the magnetic field got there is a puzzle. The prevailing theory holds that the moon once had a liquid iron core that churned like Earth's before it solidified and imprinted its vanishing field in the crustal rocks. Others believe swirling clouds of hot, ionized gas created by asteroid impacts early in lunar history generated short-lived, local magnetic fields that became locked in the crust.

The lava plain Beresheet will land on was created just at the time researchers believe the moon's dynamo was fading, about 3 billion years ago. Finding a strong field, no field, or something in between "will help us probe when the lunar dynamo extinguished," Aharonson says; measuring how the field varies across the plain could reveal the effects of later asteroid impacts.

"This will help fill in the scales between Apollo samples and satellite measurements," says planetary scientist Dave Stevenson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, but "it's not clear what the result will be." Tikoo is more enthusiastic: "Just to show there was an active dynamo in that region will be very interesting."

More scientific data will come with the arrival of other XPrize alumni. On Moon Express's first flight, planned for 2020, it will carry an optical telescope provided by the International Lunar Observatory Association, which will test the practicality of siting larger telescopes on the moon, far from the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere. Astrobotic's inaugural mission will ferry more than 20 payloads, including one for the Mexican Space Agency. Astrobotic's Thornton expects more business from the roughly 50 national space agencies: "Everyone would love to have a moon program of their own."

NASA looks set to become a major customer. Last year, it announced a list of nine companies, among them many XPrize participants, that could bid for contracts to carry NASA lunar payloads. (Foreign companies like SpaceIL did not make the list, but others qualified by acquiring U.S. partners.) Last month, the agency revealed the dozen payloads it wants delivered, and bidding for the jobs will begin shortly. "It's exciting because there's a lot of money involved—$2.6 billion over 10 years," Richards says. "That's our main focus right now: Deliver as many as we can as soon as we can."

Private companies, too, might engage these lunar FedEx services to test space technology and prospect the moon's mineral wealth. And a university with deep pockets could dispatch its own experiments there without involving NASA. "The science community is going to love these regular opportunities to go to the moon," Thornton says. "We've been in this business for 12 years. This is what we've been waiting for."