YEHUD, Israel (AP) – An Israeli spacecraft crashed into the moon just before landing, failing in an ambitious attempt to make history on Thursday as the first private-funded lunar landing.
The ship lost communication with the ground control during its final descent. Moments later, the mission was declared a failure.
"We definitely crashed on the surface of the moon," said Opher Doron of Israel Aerospace Industries.
He said the spacecraft's engine died out shortly before landing, and scientists were still trying to figure out the cause. The spacecraft, called Beresheet, was in scattered pieces at the landing site, he said.
However, Doron called the mission "an amazing success" to reach the moon and be so close to landing successfully.
"It is by far the smallest and cheapest ship ever made to reach the Moon," he said. Beresheet was the size of a washing machine.
The incident occurred in front of a crowded audience that included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was broadcast live on national television.
"We will try again," said Netanyahu. "We get to the moon, but we want to land more comfortably, and that's for the next time."
It was expected that the small robotic spacecraft, built by the non-profit organization SpaceIL and the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, would coincide with a feat that only the United States, Russia and China have achieved.
The failure was a disappointing end to a 6.5 million kilometer (4 million mile) lunar voyage, almost unprecedented in its length and designed to save fuel and reduce the price. The spacecraft was hooked on a SpaceX rocket launched from Florida in February.
For the past two months, Beresheet, which means "Genesis" or "In the beginning," traveled around the Earth several times before entering the lunar orbit.
About 20 minutes before the scheduled landing, engine firings slowed Beresheet's descent. The engineers watched in silence as the ship, its movements transmitted live on dozens of screens, gliding toward a free fall.
But then, the screens showed that the engine failed and the speed increased as it headed towards the lunar surface. Radio signals from the spacecraft, cut off abruptly.
Standing in front of the dark screens of the computers, the controllers declared that the mission was a failure. The ship crashed near the historic landing sites of Apollo.
President Reuven Rivlin received dozens of young people at his official residence, one of several celebrations scheduled throughout the country. The children, some wearing white and blue spacesuits, seemed confused as the clash unfolded.
"We are full of admiration for the wonderful people who brought the ship to the Moon," Rivlin said. "It's true, not as we expected, but in the end we will succeed."
Beresheet carried a small laser retroreflector from NASA designed to measure magnetic fields and provide information about the iron core of the moon. It also had a time capsule that included a Bible, Israeli cultural symbols and an image of the famous Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the accident of the United States space shuttle, Columbia, in 2003.
The head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, said he regretted that the mission had not succeeded, but "I have no doubt that Israel and SpaceIL will continue to explore and I hope to celebrate their future achievements."
The Apollo 11 lunar traveler, Buzz Aldrin, expressed his repentance "for what he almost was" and tweeted: "Never lose hope: your hard work, teamwork and innovation inspire everyone!"
The Google Lunar X Award competition, which offered $ 20 million for the first company financed with private funds to reach the Moon, is what first took SpaceIL to get Beresheet off the ground.
Beresheet made the final cut, but after several term extensions, the competition ended last year without a winner.
SpaceIL continued with its dream, convinced that the mission would help to inspire the next generation of Israel to study science and engineering. The $ 100 million mission was funded in large part by Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn and a handful of other investors.
"As soon as I heard his dream, I wanted to support him," Kahn said. "He knew he would give us a sense of pride in Israel."
The XPrize Foundation congratulated the SpaceIL team despite the failed landing.
"We are extremely proud to have gotten here," said Peter Diamandis, founder of XPrize.
The spacecraft crashes more on other planets than on the moon, but the moon has seen previously failed missions, said American University professor Howard McCurdy, who has written several books on space.
In the 1960s, before the lunar landings of the Apollo, NASA sent seven unmanned Surveyor flights to the Moon and two failed, he said.
"What makes it difficult are the conditions: the geological and atmospheric conditions are different on the moon and planets than on Earth," said McCurdy. "It's really hard to prove" the landing of the spacecraft on Earth.
Phil Larson of the University of Colorado, who was a space advisor at the Obama White House, said the Israeli effort underlines that "space remains extremely difficult, and throwing man-made objects into other worlds is a huge challenge" .
But, he added, "Although it could not land successfully, in general it was an innovative and innovative project."