The first private attempt to land a spacecraft on the Moon came to a sad end today, after the Israel-based non-profit SpaceIL declared that the Beresheet spacecraft had failed to land successfully. The last image received from the spacecraft, shown above, is from an altitude 22km (13.2 miles) above the lunar surface.
Precise details on what went wrong with Beresheet (a Hebrew word meaning ‘Genesis’) are still unknown. It’s been reported, based on information from the livestream, that an Inertial Measurement Unit failed and the team was unable to reset the component due to a repeated loss of communications with the JPL network. The entire spacecraft was reset to restore communications and control, but this appears to have come too late. By the time connectivity was restored, the spacecraft was moving too quickly to be fully braked before impacting the lunar surface.
— Israel To The Moon (@TeamSpaceIL) April 11, 2019
“Well we didn’t make it, but we definitely tried,” Morris Kahn, President of SpaceIL, told the New York Times. “And I think the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous. I think we can be proud.”
This wasn’t Beresheet’s first brush with failure, but it was hoped that the spacecraft, which also had launch difficulties, would enjoy a smooth descent to the Moon. Israel would have become the fourth country to land on the Moon, with SpaceIL claiming a spot for itself in the history books. Only seven nations have orbited the Moon, which means Israel still has a feather for its proverbial cap — just not the one it intended. Beresheet had planned to land in the Mare Serenitatis region. Without thermal protection, the lander would only have worked for about two days, but the laser retroreflector it carried would’ve been functional for several decades.
Only the US, China, and Russia have successfully landed on the Moon. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted his condolences for how the mission ended, saying: “While NASA regrets the end of the TeamSpaceIL mission without a successful lunar landing, we congratulate SpaceIL, Israel Aerospace Industries and the state of Israel on the accomplishment of sending the first privately funded mission into lunar orbit.”
The crash is a reminder that private space missions are not immune from the problems and failures that can doom their publicly funded counterparts. Venturing into space remains fundamentally risky, with no shortage of problems that can happen at a moment’s notice.