The Beresheet spacecraft executed a perfectly choreographed space jump on Thursday night, to allow the car-sized spacecraft to jump from one orbit around the Earth to another around the Moon.
If it is confirmed that the maneuver was successful, Israel will have become the seventh country in the world to take a spacecraft to lunar orbit. Confirmation is expected within the next few hours.
The spacecraft intends for Israel to become the fourth country to land a ship on the Moon on April 11.
The NIS 370 million ($ 100 million) spacecraft is a joint venture between the Israeli non-profit organization SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists.
So far, engineers have repeatedly activated the engines in brief bursts of about a minute or two to push the spacecraft into ever-widening elliptical orbits on Earth.
For the ship to successfully enter an orbit around the moon, Beresheet needed to reduce the speed from 8,500 kilometers per second to 7,500 kilometers per second. Although that seems to be fast for simple humans, according to engineers, it is the orbital equivalent of hitting the brakes. The engineers accomplished this by turning the spacecraft so that its engines would push it in the opposite direction, reducing the speed.
It took approximately nine minutes for eight different engines to slowly maneuver the ship in the right direction, and a little less than six minutes for the engines to reduce the ship to the correct speed.
On Thursday, engineers said they believed the moon's gravity had successfully captured the ship, although it will take a few hours to make sure the ship is heading in the right direction. Some 25 engineers in the control room of Yehud, a suburb of Tel Aviv where Israel Aerospace Industries is staying, broke out in applause at the end of the planned maneuver.
"After six weeks in space, we have managed to overcome another critical stage by entering the gravity of the moon," said SpaceIL CEO Ido Antebby. "This is another important achievement achieved by our engineering team, 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. "
Surprisingly, although the engineers successfully executed the spacecraft maneuver, the press team struggled to make the powerpoint presentation explaining next week's lunar landing for journalists, and they were forced to abandon the effort in mid-March. path, disabling the presentation.
Thursday was the longest period in which engineers have activated the engines since the launch of the spacecraft on February 22.
So far, the engines have been fired seven times to expand the elliptical orbits. Beresheet has made 12.5 trips around the Earth since its launch on February 22. Lunar orbits are much smaller and some will not last more than 14 hours. In the next week, the ship will make ever smaller circles around the moon until it reaches an altitude of about 15 kilometers above the surface. The landing gear will then be activated to take the spacecraft to rest in the Sea of Serenity.
In total, the spacecraft has traveled around 5.5 million kilometers and still has around one million to travel. This is the slowest and longest journey a spacecraft has made to the moon. The distance from Earth to the Moon is an average of about 385,000 kilometers (239,000 miles).
By using the gravitational force of the Earth and the Moon and only activating the motors at the closest and farthest points of the ellipses, the engineers were able to drastically reduce the amount of fuel needed in the spacecraft. The fuel still accounts for most of the weight of Beresheet. At launch, the spacecraft weighed a total of 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds), of which approximately 440 kilograms (970 pounds) were fuel.
Beresheet, which means "Genesis" in Hebrew, began on February 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a Falcon 9 rocket from the private company SpaceX of the American businessman Elon Musk.
Last month, Beresheet sent a photo taken with its "selfie camera," in which you can see the Israeli flag at 37,600 kilometers (23,000 miles) above the Earth.
The project was launched as the entry of Israel into the challenge of Google LunarX so that non-governmental groups can land a spacecraft on the Moon. Google ended the contest in 2018 without winners, but the Israeli team decided to continue their efforts in private.
With Beresheet, Israel hopes to become the fourth country in the world to land a spacecraft on the Moon, following EE. UU., Russia and China.
Beresheet on display before its release, December 17, 2018. (Ariel Schalit / AP)
If successful, Beresheet will make history twice: as the first landing of the private sector on the Moon and the first ship of Israel to reach the orb.
If Beresheet lands successfully on April 11, the ship is expected to perform two or three days of experiments that collect data about the moon's magnetic fields before shutting down. There it will remain, possibly for all eternity, on the surface of the moon, attaching to approximately 181,000 kilograms (400,000 pounds in weight of Earth) of man-made debris scattered across the surface of the moon.