Israeli spacecraft closes in for historic moon landing

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

A small Israeli spacecraft, the centerpiece of the first privately-funded non-superpower moon mission, was primed to fire its braking rockets and descend to touchdown Thursday, a historic milestone for Israel and proponents of commercial spaceflight.

If successful, Israel will become only the fourth nation, after the United States, the former Soviet Union and China, to send a spacecraft to a soft landing on the moon. The project is intended to generate national pride and inspire Israeli students to pursue STEM educations and careers.

"Until today, three superpowers have soft landed on the moon," Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL, the non-profit formed to turn the dream of a privately-funded flight to the moon into reality, said before launch. "And we thought it's about time for a change. We want to get little Israel all the way to the moon."

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Despite modest science goals, the mission generated widespread interest. The Israeli Airports Authority Thursday included Beresheet on its flight board, listing its destination as "the moon."

An artist's impression of the Beresheet lander setting toward touchdown on the moon. SpaceIL

The Beresheet — "Genesis" — lander, launched Feb. 21 as a secondary payload aboard as SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, braked into lunar orbit on April 4. With several subsequent rocket firings, flight controllers at Israel Aerospace Industries, builder of the spacecraft, fine tuned its orbit to set the stage for landing.

Mission managers targeted a crater-free 19-mile-wide landing zone in Mare Serenitatis as Beresheet's target, one that is relatively free of obstacles and will be bathed in sunlight to charge the craft's batteries.

Starting at an altitude of about 15 miles, some 500 miles from the landing site, Beresheet's maneuvering thrusters were expected to fire to change the spacecraft's orientation, putting its main engine in the direction of travel.

After final checks, the flight computer will ignite the main engine to begin the autonomous descent to the surface.

At an altitude of about three miles, Beresheet's laser altimeter will begin feeding data to the spacecraft's computer, allowing it to calculate velocity and rate of descent. By the time it reaches an altitude of about a half mile, Beresheet's will no longer be moving forward, but dropping straight down toward the landing site.

022119-beresheet1.jpg
An artist's impression of the Beresheet moon lander. SpaceIL

Finally, at an altitude of about 16 feet, the engines are expected to shut down, allowing the 400-pound spacecraft to freely fall the rest of the way. The final 2.5 seconds of the descent will end around 3:25 p.m. EDT when Beresheet's four landing legs settle onto the surface.

With a total cost of about $95 million, including the launch, Beresheet is a bargain-basement planetary spacecraft. To keep costs down, it was built with little in the way of redundancy and its ability to recover from malfunctions was limited.

"The spacecraft will land autonomously," said SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby. "Actually, we'll send a command to land, and it will land by itself. We have never tested it, so we are not sure how it will work. We have done a lot of experiments and a lot of tests in the lab using a simulator, but we have never tested the spacecraft to land on the moon."

He warned that the moon landing could be thwarted by a single sensor failure.

"In order to begin the landing procedure, we need to give the spacecraft the exact location fo where it is," he said. "This accurate positioning is very risky. We also have a special sensor, a laser sensor. This is the first time that this sensor will be on the moon, so it is very risky, too."

041119-moon.jpg
The backside of the moon, captured by the Beresheet lunar lander as it braked into orbit around the moon on April 4. Eliran Avital

Shortly after launch, engineers ran into problems with one of Beresheet's star trackers and had to cope with unexpected computer resets. But workarounds were developed, and the spacecraft reached lunar orbit in good condition.

Beresheet is equipped with a high-resolution camera to capture panoramic views of the landing site to help scientists better understand the area. The spacecraft also carries a small "time capsule" loaded with photos and cultural artifacts, including a copy of the Bible engraved on a coin-size disk.

"We have a vision to show off Israel's best qualities to the entire world," Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist who contributed to the SpaceIL project, said before launch.

"Tiny Israel, tiny, tiny Israel, is about to become the fourth nation to land on the moon," he said. "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."

040419-beersheet-earth.jpg
The Beresheet lunar lander captured this stunning view of Earth on its way to the moon. The small Israeli spacecraft will attempt a landing on the moon April 11. SpaceIL

First published on April 11, 2019 / 1:18 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

William Harwood

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."

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