The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet was successfully launched – the first step in a 50-day journey to the moon

The successful launch of spacecraft Beresheet on February 22 began its long journey to the moon. At 3:45, on schedule, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Israeli spacecraft and a number of satellites was launched. Minutes later, the first-stage booster detached and successfully completed a vertical landing – a routine accomplishment in recent years. The payload continued its journey on top of the second-stage booster, and 32 minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft detached from the rocket to continue on its independent path.

The spacecraft began transmitting data to the control room at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) facility in Yehud even before its detachment. Following the separation, initial spacecraft functionality tests were carried out, and another critical step was successfully completed – deployment of its landing legs. "What happened until now is a tremendous accomplishment", said Harel Locker, Chairman of the IAI Board of Directors. "We are currently looking ahead to the next several weeks, to accomplish the real thing. Nevertheless, even what we have done so far is a tremendous success for SpaceIL, IAI and the State of Israel."

The Falcon 9 rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida:

Scheduled to land on the moon on April 11, the spacecraft – initiated, designed and developed by SpaceIL – has set a number of historic records: It is the smallest spacecraft ever sent to the moon – and also the cheapest. It is the first that was launched to the moon as a combined cargo, namely, along with other payload items on the same rocket; the first spacecraft sent to the moon by a private organization, not a governmental space agency; and the only one with chiefly non-redundant systems – i.e., without a backup system in case a problem arises – to save on weight and costs.

"We are very happy, but the hard part is still ahead. The landing is going to be the greatest challenge. We hope that the upcoming weeks will go by smoothly, and so will the landing. On April 12, we will all be much more relaxed," said Yariv Bash, one of SpaceIL’s three founding members, to Davidson Online. "Some of the pressure is off, but it's not over till it's over."

Our hearts were racing and there was pressure, especially as we waited to see if we have communication (with the spacecraft), but it's OK. We have communication, and that's what matters, the spacecraft is working properly. We can continue our journey," said SpaceIL CEO, Ido Anteby. "There is a lot of excitement, but we must remember that this is only the beginning. There will be more ups and downs along this way. We began a very very challenging journey. Before the landing, we need to reach the moon. This is not a simple task, but I am optimistic."

Anteby reports that the only problem they have found so far in the spacecraft is in one of the star-observing optical devices – a part of the navigation system that enables the spacecraft to determine its location according to the angles of different stars. According to him, the problem can be solved, and this specific component actually has a redundancy. He added that the first direction change maneuver is planned for Sunday, and until then, most of the spacecraft's systems will be examined in depth, concluding "We passed this milestone smoothly."

Launch summary: Morris Kahn, Harel Locker, Ido Anteby and Ofer Doron report the state of the spacecraft:

Fuel for breaks

So far, only three superpowers have landed spacecraft on the moon. The USSR was the first, followed by the U.S., which is also the only one to have landed humans there. In recent years, China joined them with a series of unmanned ships, making history just a number of weeks ago by sprouting the first plant on the moon. All three countries did this with a huge budget in comparison to the Israeli spacecraft, which is operated by a private organization – not a governmental space agency with ample budgets and human resources.

The smallest spacecraft ever sent to the moon, Beresheet is 1.5 meters high and 1.5 meters long, weighing 585 kg at takeoff. The net weight of the spacecraft is only 165 kg – the fuel required for completing its mission accounted for about three-quarters of its lift-off weight. The launch rocket released the spacecraft into a very elliptical course: At its nearest point, it passed Earth at a distance of only 215 km, and at its farthest –60,000 km away from it. Each such orbit will take 19 hours, and at the nearest point to Earth, the spacecraft will reach a speed of 36 thousand km/h.

If everything goes according to plan, on April 11, 2019, Beresheet will land softly in a region called the Sea of Serenity (not to be confused with the famous "Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 landed) – one of the moon's largest craters, not far from its equator. In 1972, Apollo 17 landed on the crater's eastern end.

To reach the moon, Beresheet will be propelled by leveraging Earth's gravity. A small portion of the fuel carried by the ship will be used for maneuvers that will move it to more distant orbits, and most of it will serve for decelerating the spacecraft into orbit around the room, and subsequently, in the landing itself. The limited amount of fuel the spacecraft can carry dictated the long course laid for it – some 6.5 million kilometers over a period of 49 days, which will also earn Beresheet the title of the spacecraft taking the longest route to the moon.

​מסלול אליפטי גדל והולך, והקפות רבות סביב הירח עד הנחיתה. מסלולה המתוכנן של החללית הישראלית | מקור: SpaceIL
The length of the elliptical orbit grows with each of the many orbits around the moon until landing. The course laid for the Israeli spacecraft | Source: SpaceIL

Three engineers walk into a bar

In November 2010, Yonatan Winetraub, a young electrical engineer at IAI, heard about Google's Lunar X-Prize competition which offered a $20 million prize for an organization that will successfully land a spacecraft on the moon. He connected with two other engineers who thought about participating in the competition – Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari, and their meeting in a bar spawned the initial idea and spacecraft blueprints. Within a month and a half, they managed to raise the registration fee and submit a preliminary plan just in time for the competition's deadline.

Later on, the team received assistance from the "Mabat Space" IAI factory, Winetraub's employer at the time, which became SpaceIL's partner in the project. The project really took off when the three founders met with investor Morris Kahn, who was enthusiastic about the idea and gave them a 100 thousand dollar start-up donation. As the project's budget grew larger, Kahn donated even more funds to the Israeli spacecraft project, totaling no less than 40 million dollars, out of its overall cost of 100 million dollars. "I am actually lucky and I think we will succeed," said Kahn following the launch. "There is still a long way to go, but I believe we will succeed and celebrate on April 11."

חוגגים עם בלונים את ההצלחה. דגם של "בראשית" עשוי כולו מבלונים צבעוניים במתחם התעשייה האווירית | צילום: איתי נבו
Celebrating success. A balloon model of Beresheet at the IAI | Photograph: Ittay Nevo 

Over the years, SpaceIL grew and developed, recruiting professional workers and managers, and the founders stepped away somewhat from the routine work. Winetraub went on to pursue a PhD in physics at Stanford University in California. Kfir Damari was one of the founders of the cyber company Tabookey, which focuses on cryptography, information security and risk management. Yariv Bash founded Flytrex, a drone-delivery company, and would go on to face an entirely different challenge, when, in early 2017, he was injured in a ski accident and ended up in a wheelchair. He returned to his work and to his SpaceIL activities during rehabilitation.

The rest of the budget was raised from additional donors, including Sheldon Adelson, with only a small fraction, just a few million NIS, funded by the Ministry of Science, in accordance with the competition's regulations that limited governmental support. the $100 million cost may seem high, but it is much lower than that of many other similar projects. As mentioned earlier, to date, the only ones to land spacecraft on the moon were superpowers, and the cost of their missions reached billions. 

"We redefined the kind of budget required for launching one kilogram of cargo to the moon. Even if for any reason the landing itself will not be carried out, this is an extraordinary accomplishment," said Yigal Harel, Head of SpaceIL Spacecraft Program.

התחלה רחוקה. יריב בש (מימין), יהונתן ויינטראוב (במרכז) וכפיר דמרי עם הדגם המוקדם של החללית | צילום: אלון הדר
A long long time ago... Yariv Bash (right), Yonatan Winetraub (center), and Kfir Damari with the early spacecraft model | Photograph: Alon Hadar

Landing bright and early

The lunar day is 29 Earth days long – namely, daytime on the moon is two weeks, followed by a night lasting two weeks. At the lunar "noon," surface temperatures reach over 120ºC, but drop to -170ºC during the dark period. Since the moon is at a tidal locking with Earth, the same side of the moon always faces us. The mission’s planners picked this region as the landing site, during the lunar "morning." The plan enables the spacecraft to produce energy using its relatively small solar panels, while operating on the moon before temperatures shoot up. The spacecraft is scheduled to operate for only three days, during which it will transmit panoramic images of the moon, selfies using a wide-lens camera, videos from the landing, and scientific data.

Alongside the historical accomplishment of landing a spacecraft bearing the Israeli flag on the moon, the spacecraft also has a scientific mission, initiated and led by Prof. Oded Aharonson from the Weizmann Institute of Science. The mission aims to decipher how magnetized rocks formed on the moon, and what that can teach us about the formation of the moon itself.

"On the moon's crust there are magnetized rocks, like those that can be found on Earth. But unlike Earth, with its global magnetic-field generating iron core, the moon does not have such a field, so how and when these rocks formed is a mystery," explained Aharonson to Davidson Online. "One possibility is that in the past, the moon had a global magnetic field, which gradually disappeared. Another possibility is that the magnetic fields formed as a result of large asteroids crashing into the moon. If we would be able to identify the age of the magnetic rocks, and their geological source, we would have a better idea of which possibility is correct, and then try and understand the processes that led up to it."

To measure the rocks' magnetic field, the spacecraft is equipped with a small magnetometer, weighing less than one kilogram, which was constructed in UCLA. "Using the device, we will perform magnetic-field measurements over a large surface area during the orbits leading up to the landing, during the landing itself, and after it. The origin and age of the rocks could also be estimated according to images taken by the spacecraft, existing geological maps of the moon, and their location, whether they are located next to crater or volcanic regions, for instance."

The data collected by the spacecraft will be analyzed by an international team, including researchers from leading universities that specialize in the study of the moon's magnetic field. Later on, it will be released to the general scientific community. "It is important that such a spacecraft, which primarily has an educational role, will also conduct a scientific mission, with an opportunity to learn something new and important about the moon," said Aharonson. "I was part of the scientific aspect of numerous space missions, but when the mission is Israeli, it has a unique and different feel to it."שומרים על קשר עם החללית. חדר הבקרה של SpaceIL במתחם התעשייה האווירית | צילום: SpaceIL
Keeping in touch with the spacecraft. The SpaceIL control room at the IAI facility | Photograph: SapceIL

To ensure that the communication with the spacecraft is maintained even if it lands with its antennas not at the optimal angle, NASA permitted SpaceIL to use its Deep Space Network – extra-sensitive antennas designed for communicating with distant spacecrafts. As part of the collaboration, Beresheet was equipped with a laser reflector that will allow NASA to accurately identify its location on the lunar surface after landing.

To meet with the original competition objectives, the spacecraft is required not only to land of the moon, but also to move 500 meters on its surface. The plan was to do this by "leaping" – by taking off from the surface and landing again in a controlled manner. "We are not sure we will carry out the maneuver in any scenario," Harel confessed this week. "On the one hand, if the landing goes smoothly, it may be risky to attempt a complex maneuver that could fail. On the other hand, we want to show that we can live up to the original competition conditions. The decision will probably be made only closer to the landing."

A smart little spacecraft

SpaceIL's spacecraft includes numerous technological advancements, many of which were developed by the organization’s engineers. The propulsion system, for example, is based on a large primary engine surrounded by eight smaller ones, which are mainly aimed at making directional and turning corrections. This kind of engine is usually used for carrying communication satellites into orbit, and this is the first time this kind of system will be tested in a deep-space mission, and not in an orbit around Earth.

The spacecraft's navigation is based on an optical system that identifies certain stars in the sky, and uses their location to calculate the spacecraft's location. The organization's engineers purchased the optical detectors from a specializing company, but developed the algorithm that analyzes the data and makes the calculations themselves. SpaceIL’s engineers also developed their own optical devices, and succeeded in transforming existing imaging gear into a system that will assist them in landing and, of course, documenting the mission.

In addition to the spacecraft itself, SpaceIL is also an educational initiative that aims to spark interest in space exploration in children and youth, and encourage them to pursue science and engineering studies. The organization has produced educational programs for different ages and numerous lectures for the general public. "To all children reading this article: I would like to encourage you to take a chance and build the next spacecraft, solve cancer or global warming, or any other problem that intrigues you," concludes Winetraub. "To do this, you will need science and engineering, and this is a great place to start."

En route to the moon: the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida | Photograph: SpaceX
Translated by Elee Shimshoni