By James Rogers
Published April 12, 2019
The spacecraft experienced an engine problem seconds before it was expected to reach the Moon. Beresheet was just a few hundred feet above the lunar surface when Mission Control in Yehud, Israel, lost contact with the probe.
The lander would have been the first private mission to reach the Moon.
Beresheet, which is Hebrew for “in the beginning,” was developed by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.
“Preliminary data supplied by the engineering teams of SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) suggests a technical glitch in one of Beresheet's components triggered the chain of events yesterday that caused the main engine of the spacecraft to malfunction,” the Mission explained, in a statement released Friday. “Without the main engine working properly, it was impossible to stop Beresheet's velocity. Beresheet overcame the issue by restarting the engine. However, by that time, its velocity was too high to slow down and the landing could not be completed as planned.”
Data show that the first technical issue occurred 14 km (8.7 miles) above the Moon. Contact with spacecraft was lost when it was 150 meters (492) feet above the lunar surface. “Beresheet was moving vertically at 500 km/h (310.7 miles) to the inevitable collision with the lunar surface,” the Mission explained. “Comprehensive tests will be held next week to gain a better understanding of the events,” it added.
Beresheet snapped a selfie as it approached the lunar surface, which was greeted with excited applause in Mission Control. Just moments later, however, the team that built the washing machine-sized probe looked on in horror as it became clear that the audacious mission had failed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the audience in a packed Mission Control for the landing attempt, which was broadcast live on national television.
"We will try again," Netanyahu said. "We reached the Moon, but we want to land more comfortably, and that is for the next time."
The unmanned spacecraft would have taken Israel into an exclusive club of space-exploring nations. Only three countries – the U.S., the Soviet Union and China – have made successful ‘soft landings’ on the lunar surface.
Israel, however, is one of just seven countries to have orbited the Moon, thanks to the Beresheet mission.
The Moon landing attempt earned the praise of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. “Condolences to the Beresheet lander @TeamSpaceIL for what almost was! Communications were lost with the spacecraft just 150 meters (!!!) above the surface, and it couldn't quite stick the landing. Never lose hope - your hard work, teamwork, and innovation is inspiring to all!,” he tweeted.
Beresheet was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 21.
The mission was born out of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition to land an unmanned probe on the moon. The $30 million competition was scrapped with no winner last year after the organizers said none of the five finalists would make the March 31, 2018 deadline for a Moon launch, Space.com reported.
Nonetheless, the XPRIZE Foundation awarded a $1 million Moonshot Award to SpaceIL for its achievement for its successful entry into lunar orbit and its attempt to land on the lunar surface.
“SpaceIL’s mission not only touched the Moon, it touched the lives and hearts of an entire world that was watching,” said Peter H. Diamandis, executive chairman and founder of XPRIZE, in a statement. “The legacy SpaceIL will have on the future of the space industry is significant. This team’s ability to build a lunar lander for $100 million and less than 50 engineers is remarkable, a leap forward towards affordable and accessible space exploration.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers