Rocket carrying Beresheet spacecraft lifts off in Cape Canaveral
Rocket carrying Beresheet spacecraft lifts off in Cape CanaveralReuters

The engineering teams of SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) tomorrow will perform the most critical maneuver yet in Beresheet’s journey to the moon. Lunar orbit insertion, or “Lunar Capture,” as the maneuver is called, allows the spacecraft to enter the moon’s gravity and begin orbiting prior to landing.

So far, Beresheet has been circling Earth in elliptical orbits and has performed several maneuvers in order to send it higher and further away. Earlier this week, Beresheet passed its closest point to Earth for the last time, at 1,700 kilometers (1,056 miles), and continued to its meeting point with the moon at a range of 400,000 kilometers (248,548 miles).

Unlike maneuvers Beresheet has performed so far, when it’s engines were operated to accelerate the craft, the current engine operation is meant to slow the spacecraft’s velocity, so it is captured by lunar gravity. The braking will reduce Beresheet’s velocity relative to the moon from 8,500 km/h (5,281 mph) to 7,500 km/h (4,660 mph).

If the slowdown does not take place as planned, the spacecraft risks leaving Earth’s gravity while missing the moon’s gravity and will enter a different and undesirable orbit in the solar system. This would bring the mission to an end.

A successful maneuver will position the spacecraft on an elliptical orbit around the moon, in which the nearest point (perilune) is 500 km (310 miles) away from the moon, while the farthest one (apolune) is 10,000 km (6,213 miles) away. In the week following the capture, the SpaceIl and IAI teams will perform several maneuvers to reduce the orbits around the moon from an elliptical to a round orbit 200 km (124 miles) above the moon. Unlike the long Earth orbits, the first lunar orbits will last 14 hours. As Beresheet approaches landing, each moon orbit will last only two hours. These maneuvers are meant to lower the spacecraft’s altitude and reach the optimal point for autonomous landing in the moon’s Sea of Serenity the evening of April 11.

Highlights of Beresheet’s journey up to the lunar capture:

  • The spacecraft has performed seven maneuvers
  • The spacecraft has traveled 5.5 million km (over 3.4 million miles) in its orbits and will travel one million more while orbiting the moon
  • Beresheet made 12.5 Earth orbits, including seven at an altitude of 70,000 km (nearly 44,000 miles), two at an altitude of 131,000 km (nearly 814,000 miles), two at an altitude of 265,000 km (nearly 165,000 miles) and 1.5 at 420,000 km (over 260,000 miles)
  • The craft has used 80 kg (176 pounds) of fuel so far

Beresheet has experienced two challenges, which the engineering team has been able to overcome: one with it’s star trackers, which were blinded by the sun more than expected, and the other involving undesirable restarts of the mission computer.

The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet was launched to the moon on February 22 at 3:45 a.m. Israel time (8:45 p.m. local time) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a SpaceX Launchpad by a Falcon 9 rocket as secondary payload alongside two satellites. The first data from the spacecraft was received by 4:23 a.m. and at 4:25 a.m. Israel time, when Beresheet deployed its landing legs as planned.

Beresheet’s launch was historic, becoming the first Israeli spacecraft to travel beyond Earth’s orbit.

How did it all start?

Although this is a national and historic achievement, it is based on a private initiative conceived about eight years ago by the three founders of SpaceIL, with two main goals: to land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon and to inspire the younger generation to study science and technology.

To fulfill their dream, young entrepreneurs Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yehonatan Weintraub enrolled in the Google Lunar XPRIZE Challenge. The competition ended without a winner in March, 2018. However, SpaceIL announced it would continue working on its mission.

The world's first spacecraft built in a non-governmental mission

Since the establishment of SpaceIL, the task of landing an Israeli spacecraft on the moon has become a national project, but funded by donors, headed by Morris Kahn. This is the lowest-budget spacecraft to ever undertake such a mission. The superpowers that have landed a spacecraft on the moon have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding. The development and construction of the spacecraft with such a limited budget is a significant achievement in itself, both for the

State of Israel and for the space industry worldwide. If the mission proves successful, it will be representing a technological breakthrough on a global scale.

The significance of the project for the State of Israel

Landing a spacecraft on the moon will represent an extraordinary achievement for the small state of Israel. The project demonstrates Israel's technological capabilities and opens many opportunities. They include promoting scientific education of the next generation: Since its founding, the NGO met with over one million students throughout the country. Secondly, the mission will advance and promote science and research. Finally, it would open a new horizon for the Israeli econom,y thanks to its engineering knowledge and advanced development capabilities. The success of Beresheet is a symbol of Israel's' success in these and other fields.

The development and construction process

The planning and development of the spacecraft included intensive work by dozens of engineers, scientists and staff. The development by SpaceIL and IAI started in 2015 and lasted until 2018. The spacecraft, which weighs only 600 kilograms, is considered the smallest to land on the moon. Beresheet is 1.5 meters tall, about two meters wide and carries fuel which represents about 75 percent of its weight. Its maximum speed will reach 10 km per second (36,000 km/h, or over 22,300 miles per second).

The Israeli flag on the moon, a selfie and a scientific mission in conjunction with NASA via the Israel Space Agency

Once landed on the moon, the spacecraft carrying the Israeli flag will begin taking photographs of the landing site and a selfie to prove Israel landed on the moon. The spacecraft has an important scientific mission to complete: to measure the moon's magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. NASA is also participating in the mission under an agreement entered with the Israel Space Agency. NASA has installed a laser retroreflector on the spacecraft, and will assist in communicating the spacecraft on the moon.

The time capsule: a huge database about humanity

The spacecraft carries a time capsule -- a huge database of hundreds of digital files ranging from details about the NGO, the spacecraft and the crew of the project, national symbols, cultural items and materials collected from the general public over the years that Beresheet will place on the moon. The time capsule will remain on the moon even after the mission is completed. Since the spacecraft is not expected to return to Earth, the information it carries is destined to remain on the moon for an indefinite period and may be found and distributed by future generations.

Packing and transporting the spacecraft to the US launch site

In January 2019, the spacecraft was packed and flown to the U.S. launch site in a complex logistics operation. Beresheet was flown in a unique container, which underwent structural and engineering changes to accommodate the sensitive cargo. After arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, it was loaded onto a temperature-controlled cargo plane. Upon landing in Orlando, Florida, the spacecraft was transported by land to the launch site.

Partners and donors

IAI has been a full partner in the project since its inception. Over the years, additional partners have been added from the private sector, government and academia. The most prominent of them are the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Israeli Space Agency, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq and others. Among the main contributors to the project are

Miri and Sheldon Adelson, Sammy Sagol, Lynn Schusterman, Sylvan Adams, Stephen Grand and others. Philanthropist and businessman Morris Kahn took the lead in completing the mission by funding $40 million of the project, and in his role as president of SpaceIL.