The Israeli moon lander Beresheet will attempt to make history on Thursday as the first spacecraft built by the private sector to safely land on the moon.
If it’s successful, the unmanned spacecraft, built by the nonprofit group SpaceIL in conjunction with Israel Aerospace Industries, would herald a new era in moon research involving the private sector.
To achieve that, however, the Israeli spacecraft will have to tackle one of the biggest challenges of its lunar journey – the landing maneuver, the last stage of which is controlled solely by the spacecraft’s computer.
In the final hours before landing, the spacecraft’s flight engineers will be looking for a flat surface 30 kilometers (19 miles) in diameter where Beresheet can safely land at a time when the moon’s surface is not scorching hot from exposure to the sun. (Temperatures on the moon are as high as 130 to 150 degrees Celsius (265 to 300 F.) during the lunar day – the equivalent of two weeks on Earth).
After Beresheet locates a site and positions itself correctly at around 15 kilometers above the surface, the lunar craft will receive the command to begin landing, at which point the lander will go into autopilot. The information received by its sensors will be transferred to navigation control software, which will calculate the appropriate commands to slow the spacecraft’s engines.
During this final stage, the engines will slow its movement until it is at a height of 4 or 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) above the lunar surface. Once Beresheet is stationary, the engines will shut down and the spacecraft is due to gently drop to the ground. The experts hope that Beresheet’s special landing gear will allow it to survive the blow.
One concern is that, if the spacecraft lands on a rock or crater, and if even one leg of the landing gear is unstable, the spacecraft could topple over and be unable to complete its mission. Other concerns relate to the risk that the main engine could fail to operate properly or that there might be a malfunction in the landing sensor, which has obviously never been tested in genuine field conditions.
After Beresheet met its first big challenge of the voyage – the maneuver in which the spacecraft’s engines slowed it down so it could enter the lunar field of gravity – it made five additional maneuvers to enter the right path to embark on a landing.
To reach the vicinity of the moon, Beresheet orbited the Earth in ever-increasing orbits until it was about 400,000 kilometers from Earth Among other records set by the spacecraft, it has traversed the longest path ever traveled by a man-made object destined for the moon. Beresheet’s long route was set to take advantage of the Earth’s gravity to help accelerate the spacecraft’s speed, therefore saving fuel and expense.
To date, the only spacecraft to have landed on the moon was built by the world’s superpowers at a cost of billions of dollars. Beresheet, which cost $100 million to build, is important in demonstrating the economic potential of space exploration, much of which is expected to be carried out in the coming years for commercial purposes by the private sector.
SpaceIL and the main benefactor of the project, businessman Morris Kahn, also hope the scientific and technological achievement will spur a “Beresheet effect” among young people in Israel, just as the Apollo project increased interest in science, technology and engineering studies in the United States after Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
The Beresheet project began as a submission to the Lunar-X competition that Google and the XPrize Foundation sponsored. No entry won that competition, but the Israelis who submitted it persisted anyway. Hundreds of thousands of students in Israel have learned about the mission since.
A large number of events have been organized for Thursday evening to track the progress of the landing.
The Science and Technology Ministry has organized several such events, which include activities for parents and children, in Kiryat Shmona, Hod Hasharon, Jerusalem, Givatayim and Mitzpeh Ramon. Other activities are being sponsored by Horizon, an organization of Israeli space educators.
Source: Asaf Ronel – Haaretz.com
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