A tiny robotic lander from Israel attempted to touch down on the Moon this afternoon, but it ultimately failed to stick the landing during its final descent to the surface. As it was firing its main engine to land on the ground, some kind of failure occurred, causing the engine to shut down. The mission team got the engine back online, but could not regain communication with the spacecraft, which means the lander likely crashed into the surface.
“We had a failure in the spacecraft,” Opher Doron, head of Israel Aerospace Industry’s space division, said during a live stream of the landing. “We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully. We are the seventh country to orbit the Moon, and the fourth to reach the Moon’s surface. It’s a tremendous achievement up until now.”
The vehicle that attempted the landing was called Beresheet, and it was the product of an Israeli group called SpaceIL. The organization had originally started developing the lander as part of the now-dead Google Lunar X Prize competition, a contest to send the first private vehicle to the Moon. The competition ultimately ended without a winner when none of the teams launched before the final deadline of March 31st, 2018. But SpaceIL pushed on with its mission, and it was able to launch Beresheet on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this year.
Up until now, the mission had been proceeding smoothly. The Falcon 9 rocket deployed Beresheet into a wide orbit around Earth on February 21st, and the lander spent the last two months traveling out to the distance of the Moon. Then, last week, Beresheet entered lunar orbit in preparation for today’s event. At around 3:10PM ET today, Beresheet reoriented itself and fired its main engine to start the landing process.
“We’ve passed the point of no return; we’re in the landing process,” Doron said when the landing began. The firing slowed the vehicle down and took it out of orbit. All seemed fine at first. As it descended to the surface, Beresheet even sent a picture of the sequence back to Earth — a selfie with Israel’s flag. It also sent back one final picture of the lunar surface before things turned south.
The engine firing was supposed to decrease the lander’s speed from 3,700 miles per hour (6,000 kilometers per hour) to zero. But when the spacecraft was about 4 miles (7 kilometers) from the surface, Beresheet’s engine inexplicably stopped firing. The mission team was able to reset the engine, but they lost communication with the spacecraft. The likeliest scenario is that the spacecraft came in too fast and created a new crater on the surface of the Moon.
If the landing had been successful, SpaceIL would have been the first to land a privately funded lander on the Moon’s surface. Up until now, only three countries have ever landed on the Moon — the US, Russia, and China — and all of those vehicles were overseen and funded by governments. SpaceIL claims that it took $90 million to develop Beresheet, and only about $2 million of that budget came from the Israeli government. The rest of the project was mostly funded by two big investors: a South Africa-born Israeli entrepreneur named Morris Kahn and the Adelson Family Foundation, a charity based in Los Angeles that supports Israel.
But now, the title of “first private lunar lander” is still unclaimed, though SpaceIL says it is proud of how far it got. “Well, we didn’t make it, but we definitely tried,” Kahn said during the live stream. “And I think that the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud.”
However, SpaceIL already insinuated that it might try to do another lunar landing in the future. “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again,” Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, said during the live stream. “We will try again,” he then said in Hebrew.
SpaceIL was also set to receive a bonus $1 million prize from the X Prize Foundation if it had successfully stuck the landing. However, heads of the foundation said they will still give the money to the nonprofit. “They managed to touch the surface of the Moon, and that’s what we were looking for in our ‘Moonshot’ award,” Anousheh Ansari, the CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said in a tweeted video.
Though today’s landing wasn’t a success, there are still more private groups aiming to touch down on the Moon in the years ahead, many of which competed in the original Google Lunar X Prize competition. One startup, Astrobotic, hopes to set up a lunar delivery service, by transporting payloads to the Moon’s surface. The company has already booked a launch for its first mission and it hopes to fly in early 2021. Japanese company ispace is also planning to send vehicles to the Moon in 2020 and 2021. The startup’s ultimate goal is to mine the Moon for resources and set up a thriving settlement on the lunar surface.
“Many of these teams continue to develop their technologies,” Ansari tells The Verge. “It’s not just about winning the prize. Maybe they started to win the prize but they continue for a lot more.”