First private mission to the moon is about to launch on SpaceX rocket
The first drawings of the spacecraft were on a pub napkin. Now, nearly a decade later, SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander is poised to be the first privately funded mission to land on the moon.
SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organisation, began as a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize, a contest with a cash prize for the first private firm to land a rover on the moon. The contest ended in January 2018 without a winner, but the company continued working on its lander. Now it is set to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the evening of 21 February aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
After launch, the craft will spend a number of weeks orbiting Earth before attempting to land on the moon on 11 April. To date, only three nations have successfully made such a landing: the US, the Soviet Union and China.
Beresheet – which means Genesis in Hebrew – could make Israel the forth, but with a difference. Due to the rules of the Lunar X Prize, the spacecraft has barely any government funding, with most of its money coming from individual donors and charities.
The SpaceIL team hopes that this mission will, as befits its name, help start a new era of more ambitious low-cost space missions. At an overall budget of $90 million, it is also much cheaper than previous lunar expeditions. It cost half as much as China’s Chang’e 4 lander, which touched down in January.
“The hopes are that if the missions become cheaper you can do a lot more of them,” says Yonatan Winetraub, one of SpaceIL’s founders. “I’m over the moon – no pun intended – to start that.”
Beresheet’s journey to the moon will not be simple. Instead of flying straight there, the rocket will place it in a relatively low orbit around Earth. That lowers the cost of the launch, because the lander can share its ride to space with satellites.
After the rocket drops it off, the spacecraft will circle the planet in ever-widening rings before being captured by the moon’s gravity at the beginning of April and landing, if all goes well, on 11 April. It will travel 6.5 million kilometres, even though the moon is less than 400,000 kilometres away.
The lander is relatively small, at just 1.5 metres tall and 2 metres wide, but it does have some scientific instruments. The craft is also carrying a “lunar library” in the form a small engraved disc containing, among other things, the entirety of English-language Wikipedia.
Beresheet is only expected to last about two days on the moon’s surface before the heat from the rising sun sizzles its instruments. In that time, it will take pictures and measurements of the moon’s magnetic field. It will also carry a mirror designed to reflect laser light from the moon back to Earth so researchers can make precise measurements of the distance between the two.
“There are still a lot of risks involved,” says Winetraub. “A spacecraft is not something you can test on Earth – we can’t do a landing and see how it goes.”
If the landing is a success, it will be a big moment not just for Israel but for the entire space industry, proving that a small, low-cost mission with little government backing can soar beyond low-Earth orbit. What started in a pub in the suburbs of Tel Aviv can end up on the surface of the moon.