SpaceIL was started with a Facebook post in 2010 but has turned into one of Israel’s top non-profit organizations. They now have 30 full-time employees and over the years have benefited from hundreds of volunteers helping to make the vision of an Israeli moon mission a reality. It is amazing the progress that can be made in less than a decade.
The mission has been shaped by their initial goal of competing for the Google Lunar X prize. It is a simple mission by NASA standards. Land on the moon, move 500m and take and send some photos back. Yet this is a mission that is truly remarkable in many ways.
Unlike all previous missions to the moon this one has been financed primarily with private investments. It will be the first non-governmental agency to have a lunar mission and the first time israel has had a space mission beyond earth orbit. SpaceIL is making this happen with a budget of roughly $100 million dollars, a paltry sum for a lunar mission. My hope is that missions like this one really open people’s eyes to just how accessible the moon is becoming.
Pulling off a lunar mission with a meager budget is only possible with some major cost savings. This mission is piggybacked on another Falcon 9 Launch which provides the low cost trip into space. Now, the falcon 9 does not itself have the capability of launching to the moon and by piggybacking on another launch SpaceIL didn’t get to choose the insertion vector. As a result, the spacecraft will need to perform a series of small earth orbital boosts until it can transfer into a lunar orbit and transition then to landing on the moon. This journey will take 2 to 3 months to do. If all goes to scheduled the landing on the moon should happen in mid-April.
It may be a piggybacked payload but that does not mean it is a cubesat sized lander. The Beresheet lander is 2m in diameter and 1.5m high. Or roughly the size of a small car. Fully fueled it will weigh in at 585kg (1300 lbs)
The main mission objective is to demonstrate the technology. But it is important not to waste the opportunity of landing on the lunar surface so the lander will include a small payload of scientific equipment namely a magnetometer, and a laser retroreflector.
The mission objective is to successfully land on the moon, but the bigger picture mission for SpaceIL is to inspire Israelis to pursue STEM fields and invest back into education. To that end SpaceIL have put together a pretty impressive website full of kid friendly educational games and content about the moon, they are partnering with educational institutions and helping to produce lectures.
In addition to the lander, SpaceIL has 6 ground stations located in different places around the world to enable communication with the spacecraft for it’s trip to the moon and to communicate with the lander after it has touched down.
The selected landing site for Beresheet is at the north end of Mare Serenitatis also called the Sea of Serenity, on the near side of the moon and the northern hemisphere. The target landing zone is an area about 15 km in diameter. This location was chosen because of the interesting magnetic and gravitational anomalies that have been detected there. This Mare has previously been explored by the russians in the Luna 21 mission, and NASA during Apollo 17.
Once Beresheet has landed on the lunar surface, it is expected to be operational for only 2 days. The critical factor being the spacecrafts ability to dissipate heat – a notoriously complex problem for spacecraft to deal with. Without a system to radiate heat away from the electronics they will overheat quite quickly.
In its brief mission on the surface it will have a chance to use that magnetometer to measure the lunar magnetic fields. The retroreflector will be used to get an accurate position of the lander.
Anything we send to the moon is destined to be preserved for a very long time. It is fitting that the lander will include a time capsule containing 3 disks, each with hundreds of digital files that feature important Israeli cultural information. – Songs, photos, national symbols, and even a childrens book. Certainly something that will be interesting to re-discover in the future.
The SpaceIL mission certainly is inspirational for everyone in Israel and should be seen as a point of national pride that they can pull this off. Internationally too, it shows what can be done with modest investments in space. It is an achievement that that begs the question could we do that too?