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SpaceIL landing selfie
One of the last images taken by Beresheet before it crashed on the Moon was this “selfie” during descent, showing part of the lander and the lunar surface beneath. (credit: SpaceIL)

If at first you don’t succeed…

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The good news last Thursday was that SpaceIL provided a live webcast from its mission control is the Israeli city of Yehud. Viewers were able to see the controllers at their consoles while, on the other side of a giant window, guests that included Israeli prime minister Benjamin Benjamin Netanyahu gathered to follow the landing. People would be able to see in real time what transpired with the historic landing attempt.

Initially, all appeared to be going as planned, Doron reported. “The spacecraft is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do right now.”

The bad news, at least for most viewers tuning in from outside Israel, was that the proceedings were largely in Hebrew: understandable, given the primary audience for this event was the Israeli people—the purpose of the mission was to stimulate interest in science and engineering among Israeli students, rather than try to make money—but still a challenge for those not fluent in the language to figure out what was going on. Fortunately, many of the displays on the webcast, including those of the Beresheet lander’s altitude and velocity, were in English, and there was a little English-language commentary as well.

“We have passed the point of no return. We are in the landing process,” Opher Doron, general manager of the space division of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the manufacturer of the lander, said as the landing process began. All eyes were on the displays that showed the lander’s altitude descending and its main engine firing.

Initially, all appeared to be going as planned. “We are in the braking process. The braking process is working well,” Doron said. “The spacecraft is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do right now.”

Until something went wrong. The broadcast cut away from the telemetry to display a “selfie” taken by the spacecraft as it descended to the surface, showing a part of the lander itself with the lunar surface in the background. Shortly after, controllers reported a problem with an inertial measurement unit (IMU) on the lander, and the telemetry froze for a time. “We lost telemetry for a few moments, and now we’ve got telemetry back again,” Doron said.

That telemetry, though, showed the lander’s vertical speed increasing as it descended, the box containing that information on the screen changing color from green to yellow and then to red, suggesting that something was going wrong. Those in mission control watched nervously. “We seem to have a problem with our main engine,” Doron said. “We are resetting the spacecraft to try to enable the engine.”

A moment later, he said, “We have the main engine back on.”

“No, no,” someone else said over applause. “But it’s not—” He didn’t continue his sentence, but a look at the telemetry screen explained everything: it was frozen at an altitude of 149 meters, descending at a rate of 134 meters per second, far too fast for it to land safely.

Beresheet hadn’t made it. “We had a failure of the spacecraft. We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully,” Doron said a few minutes later. “It’s a tremendous achievement, up to now.”

“It feels like we’re back in Mojave, launching SpaceShipOne,” Ansari said from mission control before the landing. “The smiles on everyone’s faces are incredible.”

From its launch in February as a secondary payload on a Falcon 9, Beresheet had experienced a few problems: a computer glitch that forced controllers to reschedule a maneuver to raise its transfer orbit, and star trackers that had too much sunlight leaking into them. The mission, though, overcame those problems and successfully entered orbit a week before, making Israel just the seventh country to do so (see “Science, commerce, and the Moon”, The Space Review, April 8, 2019).

The cause of the failure remains under investigation. “Preliminary data supplied by the engineering teams of SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) suggests a technical glitch in one of Beresheet's components triggered the chain of events” that caused the main engine to malfunction, SpaceIL said in a statement Friday.

The problems started, SpaceIL stated, at an altitude of about 14 kilometers, which appeared to be around the point the IMU malfunction was reported. “Beresheet overcame the issue by restarting the engine. However, by that time, its velocity was too high to slow down and the landing could not be completed as planned.”

The landing brought to an end an effort that dated back to the early days of the Google Lunar X PRIZE to build a lunar lander that would capture the $20 million grand prize but also have in inspirational effect in Israel analogous to the Apollo program in America a half-century ago. With the technical support of IAI and funding largely from philanthropic sources, SpaceIL emerged as one of the frontrunners to win the prize, and continued its efforts even after the prize expired a year ago.

As a consolation prize of sorts, the X PRIZE Foundation offered a $1 million “Moonshot Award” to SpaceIL if Beresheet landed successfully. “I’m so excited,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the foundation, in a phone interview shortly before the landing attempt. Ansari, whose family bankrolled the original Ansari X PRIZE for suborbital spaceflight won nearly 15 years ago by SpaceShipOne, was at mission control for the landing attempt. “It feels like we’re back in Mojave, launching SpaceShipOne. The smiles on everyone’s faces are incredible.”

After the failed landing, Ansari and X PRIZE Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis decided to give the award to SpaceIL anyway. “They managed to touch the surface of the Moon, and that’s what we were looking for for our Moonshot Award,” Ansari said in a video posted shortly after the landing.

“And besides touching the surface of the Moon, they touched the lives and the hearts of an entire nation, an entire world,” Diamandis added. “It shows that these prizes are not easy and, frankly, space is not easy. Not yet.”

That will be an important lesson for others seeking to send commercial landers to the Moon in the years ahead, carrying payloads for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program or for other customers. “Every attempt to reach new milestones holds opportunities for us to learn, adjust, and progress,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement after the failed landing. “I have no doubt that Israel and SpaceIL will continue to explore and I look forward to celebrating their future achievements.”

“We’re going to put it on the Moon and we’re going to complete the mission,” Kahn said in a brief video.

SpaceIL was intended to be a one-time effort, although IAI said it’s seeking commercial opportunities for landers based on Beresheet. Future versions of the lander, IAI executives have said, could carry 30 to 60 kilograms of scientific payloads and incorporate improvements like precision landing technologies.

SpaceIL, though, may get a second shot of its own. On Saturday, Morris Kahn, the billionaire chairman of SpaceIL who contributed more than $40 million to the $100 million project, announced a “Beresheet 2” lunar lander. “We’re going to put it on the Moon and we’re going to complete the mission,” he said in a brief video. Details about how that lander will be developed, and funded, have not been disclosed.

Some of the funding, though, could come directly from the Israeli government. Netanyahu suggested that might happen in remarks after the failed landing. “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again,” he said.

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