Two weeks after SpaceX launched the first private lunar lander toward the Moon, the Israeli spacecraft sent back a stunning selfie of itself with Earth in the background.
The dishwasher-sized robot is a four-legged lander called Beresheet, which is Hebrew for “in the beginning” – the first words of the Bible. The US$100 million mission is headed by a nonprofit called SpaceIL, which is based out of Tel Aviv University and backed primarily by the South African billionaire Morris Kahn.
In Beresheet’s new selfie, which it took 23,364 miles (37,600 kilometres) from Earth on Tuesday, a placard of the Israeli flag is visible and reads “small country, big dreams”.
If the robot successfully touches down on the lunar surface on April 11 as planned, Israel will become the fourth nation in history to pull off a Moon landing. But first, Beresheet has to close the 239,000-mile gap between Earth and the Moon.
“I wanted to show that Israel – this little country with a population of about 6 or 8 million people – could actually do a job that was only done by three major powers in the world: Russia, China, and the United States,” Kahn told Business Insider before the launch.
“Could Israel innovate and actually achieve this objective with a smaller budget, and being a smaller country, and without a big space industry backing it?”
So far, that appears to be the case. But Beresheet has not yet landed – or reached lunar orbit.
Since its launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on 21 February, Beresheet has experienced a number of problems. The first major issue was an onboard computer error. This triggered the system to reboot right before a scheduled engine burn, causing it to miss the manoeuvre.
The team eventually recovered the spacecraft, though, and got Beresheet back on course to enter orbit around the Moon in early April.
“It’s quite normal for a new spacecraft to have some teething problems in its first days, and we’ve overcome them all, so we are quite happy,” Opher Doron, a member of the Beresheet mission and the general division manager of Israel Aerospace Industries, said during a briefing.
“The Moon seems to be getting within reach.”
The first computer reset, and subsequent ones are likely being caused by radiation in deep space, mission managers said on Monday, according to Ynetnews.
“There are many things that cannot be tested on Earth – different phenomena that occur in space – and we’ve ironed them out. Hopefully most of them,” Doron said last week.
“There will probably be some more surprises along the way, and we’ll hopefully manage to deal with them, as well.”
Beresheet was designed to be relatively small to save on costs. It’s about 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and 75 percent of its mass at launch was rocket fuel. As a result, its total journey to reach the Moon, enter orbit, and touch down will take about seven weeks.
The mission cost about US$100 million – a fraction of the US$469 million that NASA spent in the 1960s on seven similarly sized Surveyor Moon landers.
NASA’s sum would be roughly US$3.5 billion today – about US$500 million per mission – when adjusting for inflation.
The planned landing site for Beresheet is Mare Serenitatis, or the “Sea of Serenity”, in the northern hemisphere of the Moon. It’s a dark-lava-covered site of an ancient volcanic eruption.
The area is also a source of magnetic and gravitational anomalies, and – in popular culture – the left eye of the “man in the Moon“.
Because Beresheet needed to be built light, engineers did not include a cooling system. This means the robot will overheat in the blistering sun on the Moon after about three days.
Until it overheats, Beresheet will take measurements of the Moon’s magnetic field using an instrument supplied by the University of California, Los Angeles. SpaceIL plans to share the data it collects with NASA and other space agencies. The spacecraft may also try to “hop” to another location using its thrusters.
Kahn said the scientific mission is not as important as what Beresheet’s landing would symbolise.
“This project of ours will take Israel into deep space. I think this is a new frontier and actually what we’re doing – this is the first nongovernmental project to go to the Moon,” Kahn said. “I think others will follow us. In fact, I’m sure others will follow us.”
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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