Some nights, the moon may look close enough to touch, but only a handful of teams have succeeded in reaching the lunar surface. The USSR did it in 1966 and the U.S. followed just four months later. China pulled it off in 2013 and again just recently, in January 2019. And this April, if all goes according to plan, an Israeli nonprofit organization called SpaceIL will be the next entity to land a spacecraft on the surface of the moon.
SpaceIL’s lunar lander, Beresheet, launched from Cape Canaveral on a used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 21, 2019, along with an Indonesian communications satellite and a U.S. Air Force satellite. Over nearly two months, the craft will boost itself into successively longer loops around the planet until reaches the moon. Beresheet carries a time capsule of digital records and an instrument to study the moon’s magnetic field. If the spacecraft touches down safely, it will mark the first moon landing for Israel and the first for a privately funded organization from anywhere.
While previous moonshots culminated from years of concerted governmental effort, SpaceIL operates more like a startup company. Inspired by the Google Lunar X Prize, an international competition to land a probe on the moon, computer engineer Yariv Bash launched the endeavor in 2010. Bash started with a web domain and a Facebook post asking, “Who wants to go to the moon,” according to SpaceIL educational volunteers manager Hili Shapiro.
Initially, Bash and his two co-founders hoped to land a water bottle-size probe on the moon by the end of 2012 to win the $20 million purse. In addition to research, the team’s early efforts focused on securing funding and finding rocket scientists. “You can’t build a spacecraft with only three people,” Shapiro told Space.com.
Over the course of the project, SpaceIL managed to raise at least $100 million from major donors and recruit scores of volunteers; Shapiro estimates that roughly 80 percent of the nearly 200-person organization consists of volunteers, including some engineers.
After building the company, SpaceIL had to build the spacecraft. Engineering began in earnest after the team secured a launch contract with SpaceX in 2015 and determined how much volume would be available on the rocket. And it wasn’t a lot.
To keep costs low, SpaceIL agreed to share a rocket with two other satellites. The shared launch would bring the craft only to Earth orbit, from which point the lunar lander would have to fly itself all the way to the moon. The added fuel requirements of this approach killed plans for the water-bottle-size probe, so blueprints for a 1,314-lb. (596 kilograms), smart-car-size, four-legged lander took their place. [Israel’s 1st Moon Lander: The SpaceIL Beresheet Lunar Mission in Pictures]
The cramped rocket didn’t allow room for Beresheet to include backup systems, such as an extra computer to test code or run updates. Any major system failure will doom the craft, according to flight software developer Shai Yehezkel; however, mission control has made minor tweaks to adapt on the fly, such as configuring the craft to reject faulty star readings that unexpectedly cropped up when Earth blocked part of the craft’s field of view. “The best engineering work was made from the limited budget,” Yehezkel told Space.com. “We know how to improvise.”
The X Prize expired unclaimed in 2018, but SpaceIL’s outreach-driven mission has kept the company going. Shapiro estimates that the company’s volunteers lecture 20,000 students each month, and cereal boxes across Israel recently featured cardboard cutouts of Beresheet, which means “in the beginning,” or “genesis,” in Hebrew.
“We are not just saying to dream big,” Shapiro said. “We are actually showing them that we are doing it.”
Beresheet will make three orbits around Earth, each longer than the last, until the craft crosses paths with the moon. It will then loop around the moon twice before touching down in the Mare Serenitatis, or Sea of Serenity, on April 11, at the end of a two-week long lunar night, the flight team expects. The early morning light of the subsequent two-week lunar day will give the probe the energy it needs to record the local magnetic field, an experiment run in collaboration with NASA.
But the same sunlight will soon thereafter spell Beresheet’s demise, overheating the lander’s electronics. Three Earth-days after landing, the scorched vehicle will become a monument. It will also become an archive, as it carries a DVD-sized digital-analog hybrid disks bearing copies of the Bible, drawings from Israeli schoolchildren, English Wikipedia and 30 million pages of records representing a “backup” of humanity’s knowledge. SpaceIL hopes future moonwalkers might decode the time capsule and learn about Earth in 2019. “We are throwing them a challenge,” Yehezkel said.
Whether the terrestrial flying saucer lands smoothly or not, SpaceIL’s engineering mission ends in April. Beresheet’s story, however, may not. Israel Aerospace Industries, the contractor who built the craft, has signed an agreement with a German firm to build similar landers for the European Space Agency in the future.
SpaceIL plans to continue its educational activities and seeks an Israeli “Apollo effect” to inspire the next generation of space enthusiasts, Shapiro said. “We hope our story will begin more stories.”