Israel’s Beresheet Spacecraft Crash: What Went Wrong

On Thursday, April 11, 2019, the entire country, including PM Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, watched breaths abated as Israel attempted to become the fourth country in the world to land a spacecraft on the moon.

The historic moment came about through teamwork between Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL. Named Beresheet (Hebrew for “in the beginning”), the spaceship displayed the names of its makers and sponsors, an Israeli flag, the words “Am Yisrael Chai” (literally “Long live the Nation of Israel”), and an added inscription that read “Small country, big dreams.”

In the Beginning

SpaceIL is a non-profit organization that was established in 2011 to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon. Kfir Damari, Yonatan Winetraub, and Yariv Bash inaugurated the organization. The young engineers answered a global challenge introduced by Google Lunar XPRIZE to construct, launch and land an unmanned spaceship on the Moon.

SpaceIL was the only representative from Israel. In January 2017, the organization made it to the five finalists. On March 31, 2018, the competition ended with no winners as Google withdrew its sponsorship. Irrespective of the competition, SpaceIL was determined to continue and complete its mission to land on the Moon and to advance the education of science and technology in Israel.

The $100 million spacecraft, which was funded almost entirely by private contributions from renowned Jewish philanthropists, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a SPACEX Falcon 9 rocket, on February 22, 2019. It then embarked on a 49-day voyage. If it had landed successfully on the moon on April 11, it would also have been the first time that a privately sponsored venture had landed there.

Beresheet’s Journey to the Moon

The Big Moment

The US, Russia (then the USSR), China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency (ESA) have visited the moon via probes, but only the US, Chine, and Russia managed to land on the moon. The other probes crash-landed on the surface. Unfortunately, Israel was to become the next.

While national leaders and the Israeli public sat watching the event, suddenly, just before the spacecraft was about to touch down, there was a malfunction in the craft’s acceleration measurement mechanisms. The failures led to others causing the engine to shut down. The spacehip could not decelerate for a gentle landing and hit the moon’s surface with full strength, disintegrating upon impact.

Follow-up Investigation

IAI and SpaceIL launched a probe into the incident. The initial results revealed the acceleration malfunction. The examination will take several weeks but has focused on the events just before the crash and on understanding the facts received from automated communications transmitted between the spacecraft and ground station before impact.

According to Dr. Ido Anteby, SpaceIL CEO, until the malfunction, everything was working excellently, as expected, and fully automatically. In fact, the difficulties were the first time throughout the mission that they received data indicating a system failure. Even the acceleration measurement mechanisms were working properly until the last maneuver.

An order was sent to different acceleration mechanism on the spaceship, but a series of failures caused the main engine to shut down twice. The engine is what controls slowing the ship’s speed before landing. The ground crew tried to reactivate the engine at least five times to no avail. Communication was lost. The reason for the failures on board is yet to emerge.

Israel’s Beresheet Spacecraft crashes into moon

Looking Forwards

Despite the obvious disappointment, those involved are already looking to the future and not giving up. Morris Kahn, SpaceIL chairman and the chief financier of the project, called the achievement amazing and said that this is what happens in space. Kahn said there seems to be an ambition to build another craft that will succeed. He expressed gratitude to all volunteers and workers and said he had no regrets that they had tried.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was in the control room watching the events, said, “If you don’t succeed, you try again,” adding that the very endeavor is a tremendous achievement. “If we continue, we will become the fourth country to land on the Moon.” He promptly asked the crew how long it would take for them to build another craft.

President Rivlin, who held an exclusive viewing of the moon landing with children at his official residence, said that compared with the significant accomplishments, the disappointments are minor. He expressed pride to be there that evening with so many children who saw the feat and witnessed, along with Israeli citizens, what the country can do.

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