Update: Israeli’s Beresheet lander crashed on the Moon after multiple communication and engine failures during its descent. “We have a failure of the spacecraft, we have unfortunately not been able to land successfully," Opher Doron of Israel Aerospace Industries told viewers on the livestream. Israel still became the seventh nation to orbit the Moon, and the seventh to put an object onto its surface—even if it was an unintended hard landing. “ I think we can be proud,” Doron said.
Israel was poised to become the fourth nation in history to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon’s surface. Beresheet, an Israeli-built lunar probe, was scheduled to touch down in Mare Serenitatis, a northern region of the Moon, but it crashed at 3:23 PM ET on Thursday.
The livestream of the landing attempt kicked off at 2:45 PM ET. Communications and engine failures were announced during the descent phase.
Had everything gone to plan, the lander would have been the first privately developed spacecraft to achieve a Moon landing. The federal space agencies of the United States, China, and the former Soviet Union have soft-landed multiple probes on the Moon, and India is aiming to make its first Moon landing later this year. Beresheet, in contrast, reflects a new shift to private space exploration missions.
The spacecraft hitched a ride to Earth orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on February 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Over the following weeks, it slowly built up the momentum to maneuver into lunar orbit on April 4.
Beresheet, which is about the size of a washing machine, is equipped with cameras and an instrument that would have measured the magnetic environment of its target site. The probe also contained a time capsule of documents including the entire English-language Wikipedia library, the Torah, and the Israeli flag and declaration of independence.
The hot daytime temperatures of the Moon, which can exceed 130°C (266°F), would have rapidly overheated the lander. It was expected to die within two days of its lunar touchdown.
The spacecraft carried a laser retroreflector made by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center that could have remained operational for decades, had the lander touched down intact. The instrument did not need power and was designed to help scientists calculate the distance between Earth and the Moon with high precision.
The average distance between Earth and the Moon is 238,900 miles, but Beresheet traveled over 3.4 million miles as it completed multiple orbits of both worlds.
Though the lander was partly funded by the Israel Space Agency and Israel Aerospace Industries—both of which are government entities—the mission was spearheaded by a nonprofit organization called SpaceIL.
SpaceIL was originally founded in 2011 to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, a contest that offered $30 million to the first team that could land a probe on the Moon, travel 500 meters across the lunar surface, and send back high-resolution visuals. None of the competing teams were able to achieve the milestone before the final deadline of March 31, 2018, so the prize went unclaimed.
SpaceIL forged on ahead with the planned landing anyway, and secured additional funding from private investors such as Sheldon Adelson, Morris Kahn, and Sylvan Adams.
Beresheet was a novel hodgepodge of public, philanthropic, and private interests, which may herald a new era of more multifaceted space exploration missions.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.