It started, as many good ideas do, in a bar. It ended with an Israeli spacecraft coming excruciatingly close to landing on the moon.
In between were the enticement of a $20-million prize, tons of Israeli know-how, a very long journey and no shortage of heartbreak – but plenty of grit.
As millions tensely watched in real time, Israel’s much-heralded Beresheet spacecraft crashed into the lunar surface on April 11, just minutes before its scheduled landing. Israel was to have joined rarefied company: only the United States, the Soviet Union and China have achieved soft lunar landings.
But the Israeli team behind Beresheet did achieve a milestone: it was the first privately funded interplanetary mission to enter the moon’s orbit.
That was one point of pride expressed in a serious, yet light-hearted, look at Israel’s moon mission by Yonatan Winetraub, one of the young brains behind Beresheet, who spoke at media mogul Moses Znaimer’s 20th annual Ideacity conference in Toronto in June.
Winetraub was one of three scientists who met at that above-mentioned bar in Holon, south of Tel Aviv, in 2010. The oldest was 30. The more the alcohol flowed, the more the trio felt compelled to answer the challenge of the Google Lunar XPRIZE – a call to engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world to build a craft that could successfully land on the moon and send images back to Earth.
First prize was US$20 million ($26.5 million).
The three young scientists went on to found SpaceIL, a non-profit Israeli company that intended to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon and inspire a new generation of space researchers.
In his Ideacity talk, Winetraub took the audience through the highs and lows of Beresheet’s remarkable voyage.
The four-legged, crab-like structure was just 150 cm high and 230 cm wide, and consisted mostly of a fuel tank. Instead of heading straight for the moon, which is some 400,000 kilometres away, Beresheet made ever-wider loops around the Earth, before being captured by the moon’s gravity and moving into lunar orbit in early April. That took six weeks and 6.5 million kilometres.
But a problem was detected shortly after launch: cameras called star trackers, which are used to locate the positions of stars and orient the craft’s position in space, were blinded by sunlight.
“The star trackers were blinded by the sun at angles we did not expect,” Winetraub explained. “This was a problem because if the camera cannot see stars, we cannot determine where we are.”
Ground control in Israel was able to deal with the issue and the mission was going “perfectly,” but the most dangerous part awaited: the landing.
Because signals from Earth would have been one second old by the time they reached the craft, Beresheet had to land on its own. It had to decelerate from 1.6 kilometres per second to zero in just 15 minutes.
“That’s a hell of a brake,” Winetraub said.
Trouble began just 13 kilometres above the moon’s surface, when a landing sensor indicated it was “not OK.” Communications were lost and the engines shut down. Beresheet crashed into the moon at 900 metres per second.
“Every start-up wants to make an impact. We did it,” Winetraub joked. “We wanted to land on the moon. Well, we did it – in too many pieces.”
But “a big part” of the project was to inspire young people. “We (SpaceIL) reached over one million kids talking about space exploration,” Winetraub said with pride.
What his team learned was “that things don’t (always) work the first time around and that science and engineering are hard.”
The project also opened the hatch to private, less expensive lunar missions. “Now, private organizations can get to the moon. This is a new era,” he said.
Winetraub said the mission’s major backer, Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, who put up $45 million for Beresheet, has expressed interest in a second shot.
But in late June, SpaceIL said it will not make a second attempt at the moon.
Instead, the Israeli non-profit announced in a statement and on social media that, “we will seek out another, significant objective for Beresheet 2.0. More details to follow…”