Today, an Israeli nonprofit will attempt to land a small robotic spacecraft on the surface of the Moon. If successful, it’ll be the first lunar landing for Israel and the first time a vehicle funded by private money has touched down on the Moon’s surface.
The lander en route to the Moon this afternoon is named Beresheet, and it was developed by an Israeli organization called SpaceIL, a former team in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Beresheet launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 21st, and it was deployed into a wide orbit around Earth. The lander periodically burned its main engine in space, stretching its orbit out farther and father to reach the Moon. Last week, the lander burned its engine again near the lunar surface, slowing down enough so that it entered the Moon’s orbit.
Since then, the lander has been slightly refining its path around the Moon, getting closer to the lunar surface. Now, it’s ready to take itself out of orbit and reach the ground. The mission team will send a series of commands to Beresheet to start the landing process, which should begin around 3:05PM ET. The spacecraft will ignite its main engine again, slowing itself down from 3,700 miles per hour to zero. At around 16 feet or so above the surface, Beresheet’s engine will shut off, and it will free-fall to the surface. The touchdown is slated for around 3:25PM ET.
Once on the Moon, Beresheet will take images and video of the surface and study the magnetic field of its landing location, a region known as Mare Serenitatis, or the Sea of Serenity. But SpaceIL’s landing is less about science and more about demonstrating what can be done with private money. The team’s budget was just $90 million, $2 million of which came from government resources. A successful lunar landing will be a big step forward for the private space industry, and it will also make Israel the fourth country to land on the Moon, after the United States, Russia, and China. SpaceIL is also poised to receive a bonus $1 million prize from the X Prize Foundation if its landing is successful.
The mission team plans to provide live coverage of the landing starting at 2:45PM ET, with views from the control room and hopefully some shots from the Moon. Check back then to see what could be a historic lunar landing.