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By Corey S. Powell
Beresheet is the first word of the Hebrew Bible, meaning “in the beginning.” It’s also the apt name of the robotic lander that an Israeli start-up is planning to launch to the moon on Feb. 21.
If the mission succeeds, Beresheet will be the first Israeli spacecraft to travel beyond Earth orbit and the first private lander on the moon. The mission could also mark the beginning of a new spaceflight era — one in which companies go where previously only nations have gone.
John Horack, an aerospace engineer at Ohio State University and a spaceflight expert, is giddy at the possibilities. “Nothing like this has been tried before,” he says. “We’re looking at an entirely new model for space exploration beyond Earth orbit.”
From its funding to its engineering to its modest size (Beresheet is about the size of commercial refrigerator), almost everything about the Israeli probe goes against tradition. Its inspiration sprang not from a government program but from the Google Lunar XPrize, an “American Idol”-like competition that promised $30 million to any private team that could put a lander on the moon, have it travel 500 meters (about 1,600 feet) and send back photos and video documenting its journey.
In 2009, the XPrize captured the imagination of Yonatan Winetraub, at the time a 22-year-old Israeli aerospace engineer who was spending a year at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He wondered: Why not try out for the moonshot award himself? “Unfortunately, I couldn’t find people who were crazy enough to follow my idea,” he says.
When Winetraub returned to Israel, he met two kindred spirits, computer engineer Yariv Bash and entrepreneur Kfir Damari. “The three of us sat down in a bar in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, and as the alcohol level went up we were becoming more and more determined to do this thing,” he recalls. That was when the trio founded SpaceIL, the nonprofit that created Beresheet.
It’s been high drama ever since. SpaceIL submitted its proposal to the XPrize committee just 45 minutes before the Dec. 31, 2010, deadline. The first three concepts for Beresheet failed their engineering evaluations, teaching SpaceIL painful lessons in how to get the most out of every drop of fuel. And when the XPrize competition expired last year without a winner, SpaceIL had to scramble for funds to complete its lander.
Now Beresheet is at Cape Canaveral in Florida, less than two weeks away from its scheduled liftoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Like an Uber to orbit
From the start, SpaceIL and its partner, Israel Aerospace Industries, have struggled against a major handicap: They had never worked on a moon mission before. Every component of the lander presented a fresh challenge, especially as the engineers struggled to keep the craft lightweight and on budget.
In its final form, Beresheet weighs 350 pounds, not counting a half-ton of onboard propellant. The mission costs add up to $95 million, much of it underwritten by Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecom billionaire and philanthropist.
For comparison, NASA’s last robotic moon lander was Surveyor 7 all the way back in 1968. It weighed twice as much as Beresheet, and the Surveyor program cost $3.5 billion in current dollars (although that covered seven separate missions).
Beresheet is a secondary payload on its SpaceX rocket, meaning it’s tagging along on a launch for another SpaceX customer. Winetraub likens the arrangement to an Uber rideshare: The other customer takes up most of the space on the rocket and so pays for most of the launch.
That ride will take Beresheet only as far as Earth’s orbit. From there, it will have to fire its own small rockets and navigate three circuitous loops around Earth and two around the moon before landing on Mare Serenitatis, a volcanic plain on the north-central part of the lunar nearside.
“In the Apollo days they got to the moon within two days, but it will take about two and half months,” Winetraub says. “That’s how it is if you don’t want to pay full price.”
Mapping the moon with magnets and lasers
Once Beresheet reaches the moon in April, its onboard magnetometer will measure the subtle magnetic field embedded in the lunar surface. According to Oded Aharonson, of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, the lead scientist for the experiment, the observed pattern of magnetism should reveal what conditions were like more than 4 billion years ago, when molten rock cooled and solidified to form the moon’s outer layers.
“Our ultimate aim is to create a profile of the magnetic field of the moon and understand its origin,” Aharonson said in a statement.
Beresheet also carries a device that reflects light in the exact same direction it arrived, regardless of the angle. NASA already has several of these so-called retroreflectors on the lunar surface; scientists bounce laser beams off them to measure the moon’s exact orbit.
But the SpaceIL team has something more adventurous in mind.
Future spacecraft approaching the moon could use retroreflectors like a lunar GPS, Winetraub explains, pinging them with a laser to establish reference positions. Beresheet will add to that fledgling navigation network. “If you go to the moon and want to know where you are, you’ll no longer need to count on a ground station on Earth,” Winetraub says. “You can just shoot lasers down.”
After landing, Beresheet may also execute a short hop using an onboard rocket. Such a move would snag more magnetic readings but would run the risk that the lander could tip over or explode. The SpaceIL team is deadlocked over whether to take the gamble.
The private space wave
Though it has yet to leave the launch pad, Beresheet is already sending shock waves through the world of space exploration. India’s space agency is preparing its own moon lander, Chandrayaan-2, prompting a flurry of news stories about which nation’s flag will adorn the first nonsuperpower mission to achieve a lunar landing.
Chandrayaan-2 is scheduled to launch in April, several weeks after Beresheet, but it will follow a shorter, more direct trajectory. The two spacecraft could be in transit to the moon simultaneously, according to Winetraub, and it’s not clear which one would touch down first.
“I think that will be pretty exciting,” Winetraub says. To the SpaceIL team and other advocates of private spaceflight, fostering a start-up culture in space exploration takes precedence over national pride and bragging rights.
“Even if it is not successful, Beresheet may have a notable impact,” Horack says. “It will help future entrepreneurs adopt the things that work, avoid the things that didn’t work and get a better perspective on how they might operate a company that involves travel to the moon.”
Winetraub agrees, saying, “We’re just a small part in this huge wave of privatization.” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently promised a NASA-supported commercial moon landing “by the end of 2020,” possibly in partnership with another former XPrize contestant. And OHB, an aerospace company in Bremen, Germany, is partnering with SpaceIL to pitch a similar project to the European Space Agency.
Winetraub is also dreaming of grander endeavors, like a private mission to Oumuamua, the mysterious interstellar object that flew through the solar system in 2017. “I want people to say: ‘Let’s go see if it has anything to do with aliens. Let’s figure it out.’ I think people will be encouraged to do things like that, now that they know private space missions are possible.”