This afternoon around 2-4 p.m. Central Time, Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft will attempt to soft-land on the moon. If successful, Israel will become the fourth country after the U.S., Russia and China to so. Beresheet, which means genesis, was created and launched by SpaceIL, a non-profit organization that promotes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in Israel. It’s funded through philanthropy and the Israel Space Agency.
The spacecraft launched on Feb. 21 and achieved lunar orbit on April 4. Besides its educational goals, the mission is a demonstration of hardware and technology with a little bit of science tossed in. Beresheet (pronounced bear-eh-SHEET) will take photos and measure the moon’s local magnetic field. It also carries along a retroreflector that scientists back on Earth can ping with a laser and determine precise distances to the moon by measuring the amount of time it takes the beam to make the round trip.
You’ll also find a space-age time capsule among its baggage containing containing hundreds of digital files of drawings of the moon and space by Israeli children, Israeli art and literature, memories of a Holocaust survivor, a Hebrew Bible, sound files of Israeli songs and pictures of the country’s landscapes. Beresheet measures 5 feet high (1.5 meters) and 6.5 feet wide (2 meters); the entire mission cost about $100 million.
With no way to cool itself during the heat of the 2-week-long lunar day or stay warm during the equally long night, Beresheet will only operate for about two days on the lunar surface until it overheats. Since the retroreflector is passive, it’s expected to function for several decades.
You can watch the landing live this afternoon — just click over to SpaceIL’s Facebook page.
*** Update 6:30 p.m. — Beresheet likely crashed due to a faulty gyro and a temporary failure of the main engine. Communications were also lost for a short time. When contact was reestablished, the engine fired back up, but at that point the craft had lost too much altitude and couldn’t recover. At the time of the communications failure, it was traveling at about 2,100 mph and 74 miles from the landing site (see below).