Israel’s Beresheet lander crashes on moon, ending privately funded space odyssey

A picture sent back to Earth from the Beresheet lander during its descent shows the moon’s cratered surface 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) below. In the foreground, a sign emblazoned with the Israeli flag is mounted to the spacecraft itself. (SpaceIL Photo / Twitter)

An Israeli-built lander crashed onto the moon today during its final descent, bringing an unfortunate end to the first privately funded lunar mission.

“We had a failure on the spacecraft,” Opher Doron, general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division, said during a live webcast of the spacecraft’s landing attempt. “We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully.”

The crash was traced to an apparent engine malfunction. It came a month and a half after the dishwasher-sized lander was sent into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a pre-launch logistical assist from Seattle-based Spaceflight.

The Beresheet lander, which took its name from the Hebrew phrase for “In the Beginning,” was funded with nearly $100 million in private money, led by Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn’s $40 million contribution. Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson provided another $24 million for the effort.

The nonprofit SpaceIL team behind the mission was founded in 2011 to go after the top award in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition. The challenge was created to encourage private-sector lunar exploration, but the deadline came and went last year before any team could mount a moonshot.

Nevertheless, SpaceIL’s team of about 50 engineers and entrepreneurs persisted. In league with state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, SpaceIL worked with SpaceX and Spaceflight to arrange February’s launch on the Falcon 9 as a secondary payload.

Beresheet’s rocket engine executed a series of maneuvers to stretch out its elliptical orbit around Earth, and last week the spacecraft made the transition from Earth orbit to lunar orbit. That set the stage for today’s final descent.

“We didn’t make it,” Kahn said. “But we definitely tried. The achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud.”

Peter Diamandis, co-founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, was at Mission Control in Yahud, Israel, for the landing. In an email sent before the mission’s end, Diamandis said the mission “will no doubt chart the path towards a new generation of low-cost scientific lunar landers.” Israel Aerospace Industries already has forged a partnership with Germany’s OHB System AG to build future lunar landers modeled after Beresheet.

Despite the failed landing, XPRIZE plans to give SpaceIL a $1 million “Moonshot Award” in recognition of the team’s achievement.

The lander carried a high-resolution video camera system, a magnetometer to map the moon’s magnetic field and a mirror-like retroreflector. A CD-sized “time capsule” containing digitized files of children’s drawings, photographs and information about Israeli culture was also placed aboard Beresheet.

An Israeli flag was emblazoned on the spacecraft, befitting a probe that’s as much about Israeli pride as it is about lunar science or commercial space exploration. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh from this week’s apparent victory in parliamentary elections, tweeted good-luck wishes before the landing:

After the landing, Netanyahu had consoling words from Mission Control. “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again,” he said.

Beresheet made Israel’s team the seventh space effort to put a spacecraft in orbit around the moon, after the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan and the European Space Agency. A safe lunar landing would have made Israel the fourth country to succeed at such a feat, after Russia, the United States and China.

Moon picture from Beresheet
One of the last pictures sent back by the Beresheet lander shows the lunar surface. (Team SpaceIL Photo)

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