Six weeks after the launch from Cape Canaveral, an Israeli-made probe funded through private donations reached orbit around the moon on Thursday, setting the stage for the final descent of the mission to the lunar surface on April 11.
Engineers at the Beresheet mission control center in Israel confirmed the successful maneuver after telemetry transmitted by radio from the spacecraft showed that it fired its main engine for approximately six minutes, slowing it down enough to allow the gravity of the Moon will capture the probe in an elongated moon orbit.
The Beresheet spacecraft started its main engine at 1418 GMT (10:18 a.m. EDT) on Thursday for the make or break maneuver to orbit around the moon. If the probe did not work properly, Israeli officials said the spacecraft would have continued in deep space, ending the mission.
The controllers, managers and personalities of the mission observed while the data transmitted from the spacecraft to the Israeli control center showed that the engine was running normally. A screen that shows the total speed change, or delta-V, from the start of the engine counted up until it reached 323,663 meters per second (724 mph).
The engine burn was designed to reduce the speed of the probe by 324 meters per second, and officials celebrated the result, which made Israel the seventh country or international organization to place a spacecraft in orbit around the moon, after Russia, the United States, Japan. The European Space Agency, China and India.
"After six weeks in space, we have managed to overcome another critical stage by entering the gravity of the moon," said Ido Anteby, CEO of SpaceIL, a non-profit organization founded in 2011 to manage the development of Beresheet. "This is another important achievement that our engineering team achieved while demonstrating determination and creativity to find solutions to unexpected challenges. We still have a long way to the moon landing, but I am convinced that our team will complete the mission of landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon, making us all feel proud. "
It was expected that Beresheet would enter an elliptical or oval-shaped orbit that oscillates between 310 miles (500 kilometers) and 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers) above the surface of the moon. Several more engine shots during the next week will put Beresheet in a 124 mile high circular orbit (200 kilometers) in preparation for landing.
The Beresheet lunar capture maneuver on Thursday was also historic for the commercial space industry. The mission was designed, built and launched for around $ 100 million, and almost all of the funding came from private donors and corporate investments.
"We did it! First privately funded spacecraft in lunar orbit," tweeted Yoav Landsman, deputy director of the Beresheet mission at SpaceIL. "It feels like the dawn of a new era of commercial space."
Morris Kahn, an Israeli billionaire born in South Africa, contributed $ 40 million of his fortune to the project. Kahn, 89, was at the Beresheet control center in Israel for Thursday's critical maneuver.
"We have had the support of everyone," Kahn said Thursday. "NASA has recognized what we are doing, and the world has recognized what we are doing, and what we are doing is pioneering something in space, we are demonstrating that a small country can do an incredible job."
But more dangers lie ahead for Beresheet. His mission will culminate with a landing on April 11, next Thursday, in the Mare Serenitatis region, or Mar de la Serenidad, in the upper right part of the moon seen from Earth.
"After a challenging journey, we made another Israeli record tonight and became the seventh nation to orbit the moon," said Nimrod Sheffer, CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries, Beresheet's main contractor. "Even before Beresheet was launched, it was already a national success story that shows our innovative technological capabilities. Tonight, we reach new heights again. In the next week, our talented engineering team will work 24/7 to take us to a historic event on April 11. "
Beresheet launched on February 21 from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, ridden with a larger Indonesian communications satellite and an experimental US Air Force ship.
The upper stage of Falcon 9 launched Beresheet into an elliptical orbit that reaches up to 43,000 miles (69,000 kilometers) in altitude. After the separation, the ship unfolded its four landing legs. With the extended landing gear, Beresheet has a diameter of about 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) and measures 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) in height, about the size of a golf cart.
A series of main engines burned Beresheet in longer orbits that took the ship further away from Earth. Beresheet traveled more than 3.4 million miles, approximately 5.5 million kilometers, between its departure from Cape Canaveral and its arrival in lunar orbit.
The ground controllers identified a problem with the star tracking cameras of the spacecraft shortly after launch. The cameras are used to locate the positions of the stars in the sky, which helps determine the orientation of Beresheet in space. SpaceIL says that star trackers are too sensitive to blinding by bright sunlight.
Beresheet also missed one of the orbital engine burns at the end of February due to a restart of the computer, but the engineers kept the mission in time for their arrival on the Moon.
With the landing of Beresheet, the most challenging task of the ship, still ahead, SpaceIL officials remain cautious about the possibilities of the mission of a safe landing.
"Once we reach the correct point, we will simply give the ship the command to start the landing phase," said Yariv Bash, co-founder of SpaceIL. "From that moment, the spacecraft will automatically begin to land on its own, until it reaches the surface of the moon.
"Approximately 15 feet (5 meters) more or less above the surface of the moon, the speed will go to zero, and then we will simply turn off the engines and the ship will make a freefall to the surface of the Moon," Bash said. on Tuesday. "The legs of the spacecraft were designed to sustain that fall, and we hope that once we are on the Moon we can send images and videos to Earth."
Three young Israeli engineers and businessmen established SpaceIL in 2011 in search of the Google Lunar X Award, which promised the $ 20 million grand prize for the first team to land on the Moon a privately funded spaceship, which returns high definition images and demonstrate mobility in the lunar surface.
The Google Lunar X Award contest ended last year without a winner, but supporters of Beresheet kept the mission alive.
Kahn, the largest financial contributor to the mission, serves as president of SpaceIL. Other donors include Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, a casino and resort mogul who lives in Las Vegas. IAI, the main contractor for the lander, also invested some of its own internal research and development money into the program.
The Israeli Space Agency awarded SpaceIL about $ 2 million, the only government funding of the program.
The entire mission cost significantly less than any lunar vehicle backed by the government. Still, raising $ 100 million from private donors proved to be a challenge.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could get to something like $ 100 million, but once we got going, we were actually," Kahn said Tuesday. "It was a challenge, and really, I love a challenge."
The X Prize Foundation, which organized the original Google Lunar X Prize contest, announced on March 28 that it will offer a $ 1 million "Moonshot Award" to SpaceIL if the Beresheet mission lands successfully on the Moon.
"Although the Google Lunar X Prize was not claimed, we are delighted to have encouraged a diversity of teams from all over the world to carry out their ambitious lunar missions, and we are proud to recognize the achievement of SpaceIL with this Moonshot Award," he said. Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the X Prize Foundation.
"The mission of SpaceIL represents the democratization of space exploration," said Peter Diamandis, founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. "We are optimistic about seeing this first fall of dominoes fall, provoking a chain reaction of commercial missions increasingly affordable and repeatable to the Moon and beyond."
A successful landing will not only mark a first for the private space industry, but will also push Israel into an exclusive group of nations that have put a spacecraft on the Moon. So far, the United States, Russia and China have successfully landed the probes on the moon.
"We have a vision to show the best qualities of Israel to the whole world," said Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli businessman who helped finance the mission, at a press conference between the launch of Beresheet. "Little Israel, small and small Israel, is about to become the fourth nation to land on the moon. And this is something extraordinary, because we continue to demonstrate our ability to hit a lot, very, much above our weight, and to show our skills, our innovation, our creativity to face any difficult problem that may exist. "
Due to the limited budget of the project, a fraction of the cost of the lunar landers financed by the government, the Israeli team had to adapt the technology designed for other purposes to the mission of the Moon. For example, the main propeller in the lander is a modified motor that is normally used to adjust the orbits of large communication satellites.
During the landing sequence, the engine will turn on and off to control the descent speed of the lander. He can not be strangled.
Most of the systems in the spacecraft were built without a backup to control costs.
"Our ship has very low redundancy," Anteby said Tuesday. "A sensor that fails could fail the entire mission."
After landing, Beresheet will collect data about the magnetic field at the landing site. NASA also provided a laser reflector on the spacecraft, which scientists will use to determine the exact distance to the moon and to locate the location of the lander. The United States space agency is also providing communications and follow-up support to the mission.
The German space agency, DLR, also helped the SpaceIL team with drop tests to simulate the conditions the spacecraft will encounter at the time of landing.
The landing module built in Israel is designed to operate at least two days on the moon, enough time to transmit basic scientific data and a series of panoramic images, as well as a selfie. The laser reflector is a pbadive payload and will be useful long after the ship stops working.
Beresheet also intends to deliver a time capsule to the moon with the Israeli flag, and digital copies of the Israeli national anthem, the Bible and other national and cultural artifacts.
Opher Doron, general manager of the IAI space division, said he originally envisioned any commercial applications for the design of the tailor-made landing module after the Beresheet mission. But that is changing as NASA and the European Space Agency badyze the purchase of commercial trips to the Moon for scientific experiments and, finally, to people.
IAI and OHB, a German aerospace company, signed an agreement in January that could be based on the Beresheet mission by building future commercial modules to transport scientific instruments and other payloads to the surface of the moon for ESA.
According to Doron, the IAI is also in talks with US companies to use Israeli technology developed for the Beresheet project in commercial lunar vehicle launchers for NASA's Commercial Lunar Cargo Services program. NASA selected nine companies last year to be eligible to compete for contracts to transport the demonstration load of science and technology to the lunar surface.
SpaceIL and IAI were not among the winners, but Israeli engineers could partner with US firms to comply with NASA requirements.
Send an email to the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.