With Beresheet, Israel Becomes 7th Country To Achieve Lunar Orbit
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With Beresheet, Israel Becomes 7th Country To Achieve Lunar Orbit

Moon’s gravity successfully captures Israeli spacecraft during tricky maneuver on April 4, putting spacecraft on schedule for landing in six days

Beresheet engineers released this photo on April 1 of the Arabian peninsula at a height of 16,000 kilometers, photographed from the spacecraft's external cameras. (courtesy Beresheet/via Times of Israel)
Beresheet engineers released this photo on April 1 of the Arabian peninsula at a height of 16,000 kilometers, photographed from the spacecraft's external cameras. (courtesy Beresheet/via Times of Israel)

Engineers confirmed early Friday morning that the Beresheet spacecraft was successfully captured by lunar gravity during a tricky maneuver the night before, making Israel the seventh country in the world to successfully send objects into orbit around the moon.

The United States, Russia (as the USSR), Japan, China, the European Space Agency and India have all made visits to the moon via probes, though only the US, Russia and China have successfully landed on the moon; other probes lost control and crashed into the surface.

If Israel successfully lands as planned on April 11, it will also be the first time that a privately financed venture has landed there.

Early on Friday morning, Beresheet sent back photos, one taken at a distance of just 470 kilometers (290 miles) above the moon’s surface.

The Beresheet spacecraft snapped this picture of the moon’s surface at a height of just 440 kilometers during the lunar capture maneuver on April 4, 2019. (Courtesy Beresheet/via Times of Israel)

The NIS 370-million ($100-million) spacecraft is a joint venture between the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists.

On Thursday, Beresheet’s engineers executed the most complicated maneuver yet, a perfectly choreographed space hop allowing the car-sized spacecraft to jump from an orbit around Earth to one around the moon.

In order for the spacecraft to successfully enter into an orbit around the moon, Beresheet needed to slow down from 8,500 kilometers per second (5,280 miles per second) to 7,500 kilometers per second (4,660 miles per second). Although that still seems fast to mere humans, according to engineers, it is the orbital equivalent of slamming on the brakes. The engineers accomplished this by turning the spacecraft so that its engines thrust it in the opposite direction, slowing down the speed.

It took about nine minutes for eight different engines to slowly maneuver the spacecraft in the right direction, and a little less than six minutes for the engines to slow the spacecraft down to the correct speed.

Engineers celebrate in the Beresheet control room in Yehud on April 4, 2019 after announcing the moon’s gravitation pull has most likely successfully captured the Beresheet spacecraft, the most complicated maneuver that the spacecraft has executed since its launch. (Eliran Avital/courtesy Beresheet/via Times of Israel)

Thursday was the longest period that engineers have activated the engines since the spacecraft’s launch on February 22.

Now drawn into lunar orbit, Beresheet will trace smaller and smaller loops around the moon before attempting to land on April 11 in the Sea of Serenity.

A picture taken by the Beresheet spacecraft of the moon’s surface with the Earth in the background on April 5, 2019. (courtesy Beresheet/via Times of Israel)

“There is a significant chance we have a crash landing,” said Opher Doron, the space division general manager at Israel Aerospace Industries. “It’s very dangerous, and it’s difficult to predict if we’ll succeed.”

In total, the spacecraft has traveled around 5.5 million kilometers and still has about a million left to go. This is the slowest and longest trip a spacecraft has made to the moon. The distance from the Earth to the moon is an average about 385,000 kilometers (239,000 miles).

Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, lifted off on February 22 from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the private US-based SpaceX company of entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Beresheet on display before its launch, December 17, 2018. (Ariel Schalit/AP/via Times of Israel)

The project launched as Israel’s entry into the Google LunarX challenge for nongovernmental groups to land a spacecraft on the moon. Google ended the contest in 2018 with no winners, but the Israeli team decided to continue its efforts privately.

If Beresheet successfully lands on April 11, the spacecraft is expected to carry out two or three days of experiments collecting data about the moon’s magnetic fields before shutting down. There it will stay, possibly for eternity, on the moon’s surface, joining approximately 181,000 kilograms (400,000 pounds at Earth weight) of human-made debris strewn across the moon’s surface.

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