A series of technical problems in the Israeli spacecraft caused it to crash into the moon minutes before landing

The dream and the disappointment: The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet crashed on the moon’s surface minutes before landing. The spacecraft began its descent towards the moon according to plan, but at an altitude of less than ten kilometers things started going wrong. The initial investigation indicates the problem began in one of the inertial measurement units (IMU), which measure spacecraft acceleration, orientation, and changes in direction among other things. This problem most likely resulted in a chain of disruptions in a number of electronic systems, and two consecutive reboots of the spacecraft's computer. It also caused the spacecraft’s main engine to stop working for a short period, and when it returned to operation, it was already too late.

The spacecraft most likely went out of control when it was still at a speed of 400-500 kilometers per hour and crashed on the lunar surface at high speed. "We may not have had a soft landing on the moon, but now there is a SpaceIL crater on it," said one of its co-founders, Yonatan Winetraub, with a bitter smile. "We have definitely reached the moon's surface, but not in one piece," added Opher Doron, General Manager of the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Space Division, which collaborated with SpaceIL on the project.

כל כך קרוב. תמונת "סלפי" שצילמה החללית במהלך הנחיתה, דקות לפני ההתרסקות | מקור: SpaceIL
So close. The "selfie" taken by Beresheet during its landing, minutes before the crash | Source: SpaceIL

 

The people at SpaceIL and IAI will continue analyzing the reasons that led to the malfunction. "We can say that the sensors worked well except for the unit that had the malfunction, the second unit functioned properly. The lasers were already measuring the distance from the moon's surface, the controls were working properly," said Yoav Landsman, Deputy Mission Director, to Davidson Online. "But it wasn't perfect, and we need to achieve perfection to reach the moon in one piece. We will learn from this and hope that the next time will be more successful. At least we have a good starting point."

 

Yoav Landsman, Senior Systems Engineer and Deputy Mission Director in an interview to Davidson Online:

Looking Forward

"We may have not made it all the way, but our accomplishment is tremendous. We all did this – it was a great project," said SpaceIL Chairman, Morris Kahn, who funded a large portion of the project's budget. "I do not regret for a moment that we tried, I am grateful to all of the workers and volunteers. We have something to be proud of."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked SpaceIL founders how long it would take to build another Beresheet. When he was told it would take two or three years, he promised that "in two to three years, we will land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon in one piece," but not before asking Kahn to assist in funding this promise.

"There’s great pain, along with immense pride. We achieved a huge accomplishment by any standard," said Opher Doron. "We almost made it. I hope we will have another opportunity soon to get there. I believe that we will find where the problems arose and be able to fix them. It is a very small, cheap and efficient spacecraft, the first of its kind. I hope that the next round will be more successful."

במרחק נגיעה. התמונה האחרונה שהעבירה "בראשית" במהלך נסיון הנחיתה | מקור: SpaceIL
Almost within touch. The last image transmitted by Beresheet during the attempted landing | Source: SpaceIL

Even if there will not be another opportunity to land another spacecraft on the moon, SpaceIL intends to continue its educational project. "We will continue promoting science and technology education in Israel," promised SapceIL CEO, Dr. Ido Anteby. "I am confident that IAI will know how to leverage the development of the first Israeli spacecraft towards forming collaborations and continuing the development of the space industry in Israel."

The thousands of children and youth who watched the landing attempt on TV and in hundreds of events throughout the country that attracted numerous viewers, including young ones, are testimony to SpaceIL's educational success. Winetraub chose to address these children: "Science and engineering are hard. Sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes you reach the moon in several pieces. But you have to continue trying. I hope you will continue and try and be curious, and some day – reach the moon or the stars or wherever you wish. I wish this mission had a different ending, but do not let what happened make you sad. We need to look forward and aspire to new things."

Yonatan Winetraub, one of SpaceIL's founders, in an interview to Davidson Online:

Feeling Like a Million Bucks

The project of sending an Israeli spacecraft to the moon and SpaceIL were founded in order to participate in Google's Lunar X-Prize, which aimed to encourage private organizations to develop space missions without governmental support, and offered a 20-million-dollar prize to the group that would successfully land a spacecraft on the moon. After a number of postponements of the competition deadline, Google decided to cancel the prize last year, with no winner. The cancellation created a real financial issue for the Israeli group, but eventually, thanks to Kahn and other donors, funds enabling the project to proceed to the launch were found. The founder and chairman of X-Prize, Peter Diamandis, was hosted at IAI's control room for the landing, and confirmed that his organization will award SpaceIL a sort of consolation prize of one million dollars for its impressive achievement.

 

SpaceIL and IAI hoped that Israel would be the fourth country to safely land a spacecraft on the moon, following the former Soviet Union, the USA, and China. Although ultimately unsuccessful in this feat, Beresheet set a number of records and achievements. Israel is only the seventh country to orbit the moon, after the three nations mentioned above, Japan, India, and the European Union. It was the first private spacecraft to orbit the moon, as well as the smallest – and cheapest. It was also the first spacecraft to be launched to the moon as a secondary payload on a launch rocket – in this case, the main payload on SpaceX's rocket was an Indonesian communication satellite.

"It is not what we were hoping for, but we made history," said Kfir Damari, another of SpaceIL's co-founders. "We brought Israel to a place that it was hard to imagine we would ever reach. We brought Israel to the moon."

"Beresheet is just the first book. There will be others, and I hope that we will not have to walk through the desert for 40 years," added Yariv Bash, SpaceIL’s third co-founder. "Eventually, it was quite a wonderful journey, and I hope it will continue with us."

Tomorrow is another day. Kfir Damari, one of SpaceIL's founders in an interview for Davidson Online:

Not All is Lost

Along with the actual landing on the moon, the spacecraft also had a scientific mission – to study the local magnetic fields on the moon, in an attempt to understand when and how they formed, and possibly learn more about how the moon formed. For this purpose, Beresheet was equipped with a magnetometer that conducted measurements of magnetic fields en route to the landing. The scientific team, led by Prof. Oded Aharonson from the Weizmann Institute of Science, planned to compare the magnetic findings with data from other sources about the age of the rocks in the areas measured, in an attempt to understand whether the moon had a global magnetic field in the past – like Earth’s – that had just slowly disappeared, or if the source of the magnetism of the moon's rocks is external – for instance, from asteroids that crashed into it.

Senior members of SpaceIL confirmed to Davidson Online that along with the images the spacecraft produced before the crash, it also transmitted data from the magnetometer, which may enable the researchers to complete at least part of the planned scientific mission, and shed light on the processes leading to the moon's formation.

The press conference of senior members and founders of SpaceIL, following the crash:

Previously on the Story Behind Beresheet

Winetraub, Bash, and Damari founded SpaceIL in the end of 2010. The three young engineers met to examine the possibility of establishing an Israeli team to participate the Lunar X-Prize contest. They signed up at the last minute, after recruiting the $50,000 registration fee, and attempted to proceed, without really knowing what they were doing. Later on, they met with the investor Morris Kahn, who granted them with the initial funds to develop the spacecraft. Another pivotal meeting they had was with IAI’s Mabat Space division, Winetraub's employer at the time, which joined the project and assisted immensely with the spacecraft’s planning, development, and manufacturing.

Realizing that the preliminary models would not work in reality, SpaceIL was transformed in 2014. From basing its progress on the work of volunteers, it moved to employing engineers, thanks to donations from Kahn and others, and began operating like a start-up company with a unique product – a spacecraft to the moon. Several months later, the blueprint of the new spacecraft was ready. From that point on, the painstaking tasks involved in building it, developing its systems and testing and retesting them, signing a launch contract, simulations, practices, programming, etc., ensued.

As mentioned earlier, SpaceIL was in real trouble when, in 2018, Google declared the contest has ended, canceling the prize with no winner. The Israeli team, which was one of the leading contestants, and the first to sign a launch contract, was about to disband: the $20 million prize was nearly a fifth of the project's budget, and it was impossible to proceed without it. Kahn eventually came to the rescue and donated a part of the amount, also assisting in recruiting the rest of the funds. Kahn donated a total of $40 million to the project. The contribution of the Israeli government, which was limited by the contest’s rules to 10% of the overall project budget, amounted to less than NIS 10 million – about 2% of the budget.

President of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Prof. Daniel Zajfman, told Davidson Online about the early days of Beresheet:     

A Long Journey

After more than eight years of planning, manufacturing, developing, and testing, the spacecraft was launched on February 21 on a SpaceX rocket. The smallest spacecraft ever sent to the moon, Beresheet weighed only 585 kilograms at takeoff, 420 of which were the weight of the fuel. Due to its small size, the spacecraft was set to take a very fuel-efficient, if longer, course than flying directly to the moon, which is 384,000 kilometers from Earth, on average. The course consisted of elliptical trajectories with their furthest points increasingly farther from Earth, and their nearest point only hundreds of kilometers away. Each orbit-changing maneuver required operating the spacecraft's engine to accelerate it. At its furthest orbit, the spacecraft was over 400,000 kilometers from Earth, where it would cross the moon's orbit. The second maneuver to begin orbiting the moon was complex, and required slowing down to allow the spacecraft to be caught in the moon's gravity. After this maneuver was successfully accomplished, a week prior to the scheduled landing, the spacecraft entered into orbit around the moon.

During the week in which it orbited the moon, the spacecraft performed additional deceleration maneuvers, gradually diminishing the size of its orbit, until it entered an elliptical orbit of which the farthest point from the moon is about 200 kilometers, and its shortest is only 15 kilometers. From this orbit, the spacecraft began its complex landing maneuver, which resulted in the crash, just hundreds of kilometers from the planned landing site, north-east from the region called the Sea of Serenity.

On a Personal Note

I covered the SpaceIL project almost from the beginning, and followed its development from a small and unprofessional program to a professional space mission, lined up with the leading space organizations of the world – both governmental and private. The success of the project did not only stem from the fact that it employed dozens of great engineers, but also from the spirit cast on it by the three co-founders – the belief that everything is possible. To a great extent, it was also the Israeli chutzpa that had also made Israel the "Start-Up Nation," and can be summed up in a sentence: "Just because everyone before us failed, does not mean we cannot succeed."

The Beresheet project benefited from a rare synergistic combination of a non-profit organization working like a start-up company and the more traditional yet experienced in space industry, IAI. In addition, the fact that the project received little governmental support was instrumental in keeping it away from political influence. These success factors were also accompanied by a sense of purpose shared by all of those involved in the project – the clear feeling that they are not just developing a technological product, but also a national symbol and an educational program, not necessarily in that order. All of these assisted the Israeli spacecraft project to surpass all expectations and accomplish a great achievement, even if it was cut off ten minutes before time.

Yonatan Winetraub, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari, together with dozens of engineers and hundreds of volunteers, wrote a glorious chapter in the history of the State of Israel, and created a legacy that would lead many young people to follow in their footsteps and bring scientific and engineering accomplishment. The State of Israel and the people of Israel owe them a debt of gratitude.

Beresheet Moon – Davidson Institute's tribute song for the Israeli spacecraft to the moon:

 

Translated by Elee Shimshoni

0 comments