Israeli moon mission marks halfway point with eye toward historic landing
With all hiccups and milestones cleared, Beresheet is right on schedule for a mid-April landing on the moon.
Thursday marks the one-month anniversary of the historic mission that launched a tiny Israeli spaceship towards the moon. Now that we're at approximately the halfway point in the journey, we figured it would be a good time to take stock and look at the challenges that lie ahead for the mission in the coming weeks.
A slingshot to the moon
Ever since the ship left Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the night of Feb. 21, the folks behind the trip have been patiently waiting each day's news as it's sent back down to earth.
From the mission command headquarters in the city of Yehud, about 30 miles east of Tel Aviv, engineers at SpaceIL and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) are watching with bated breath. The ship has orbited the earth multiple times and is slowly being drawn closer to the moon. After a successful maneuver earlier this week, the next two weeks will be crucial as the tiny ship is expected to enter the moon's orbit. This "lunar capture" is set to take place on April 4.
"It has been an interesting challenge so far," Yonatan Winetraub, one of the three mavericks who came up with the idea for the mission, told us this morning. "The engineering team of SpaceIL and IAI showed a great amount of creativity and determination in solving problems and ‘hiccups’ along the way."
A careful landing
The Beresheet's landing site will be on the northern hemisphere of the moon in what's known as the Sea of Tranquility, the same general area as the Apollo 11 landing site. It's where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin famously took their first moon walk, planting an American flag onto the surface of the moon.
Which begs the question: Since so few people and machines have ever actually touched the moon, what will happen when the spaceship arrives? When the Beresheet gets within about 16 feet of the lunar surface, it will shut off its engines and attempt to freefall – gently – onto the moon's surface. But will it kick up any dust? Could it, perhaps, blow away Buzz Aldrin's iconic bootprint?
Winetraub said it's important to keep in mind that the Sea of Tranquility is more than 500 miles wide, and the Beresheet ship is just a tad bigger than a dishwasher. "We won’t land next to Apollo missions," he revealed. "The moon is big and there is enough space for everyone."
A white-knuckle space race
The first landing opportunity for the small Israeli ship will be on April 11, when space enthusiasts from around the world will be glued to the live feed of the SpaceIL ship. Could a new phrase – "Israel, Beresheet has landed" – enter the lexicon?
The Beresheet hitched a ride into outer space aboard a SpaceX rocket, which dropped off the Israeli vessel far away from the moon. Hence, the eight-week travel time from launch to landing. Meanwhile, India is set to launch its own spacecraft in mid-April. The ship, dubbed the Chandrayaan-2, is taking a more direct route and flying directly to the moon. Their trip might take as little as three days, meaning it's possible that India could become the fourth country to land on the moon – after Russia, the U.S. and China.
The good news for Israeli space fans is that the Indian ship does not have an exact launch date on the books – a step that's usually taken about two weeks prior to liftoff. As the calendar days flip ever closer to April 11th, the chances are more likely that Israel will touch down first.
"So far, it is a great achievement for Israel as SpaceIL is the furthest Israeli object had gone," Winetraub told us. "However, the hardest part is still ahead and we are all looking forward to a successful lunar capture and landing. Both are extremely challenging."
Gravity and frequent flyer miles
Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli philanthropist, was part of the team of upstart believers who thought this dream could become a reality. "This is an investment in science. This is an investment in inspiring our youth to think beyond the atmosphere and beyond our planet. And this is a contribution to mankind," he told From The Grapevine during an exclusive interview in Jerusalem. "It's not a financially sound investment, but it has non-financial rewards that I hope will bear fruit for many years into the future."
The Beresheet craft – about the size of a smart car – was made remarkably efficiently, at a tiny fraction of the cost for most moon missions. That meant compromises had to be made: redundant backup systems, a standard safety precaution in space travel, were tossed in favor of crossed fingers and wishes for good luck. Moreover, the machine's engine can only be turned on for brief spurts at a time. For the most part, the Beresheet ship is relying on good old-fashioned gravity to make the 239,000-mile journey from Earth to the moon.
"The space shuttle missions used to cost upwards of a billion dollars each," Adams pointed out. "Each time the space shuttle went to the International Space Station to bring another little part, it cost more than a billion dollars. We are going to land on the moon – which is much, much further than the International Space Station – for a 'mere' $100 million, but that's what we do."
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Related Topics: Space