NASA Orbiter Spots Beresheet Crash Landing On The Moon

Before and after comparison of the moon lander crash site. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took the “before” photo during an earlier pass on Dec. 16, 2016. It appears the spacecraft landed from the north on the rim of a small crater, about 30 feet wide, leaving a dark, elongated “smudge” about 33 feet wide.
NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

You guys remember the Israeli mission to the moon? A privately-funded group sent the Beresheet (Genesis) spacecraft into lunar orbit earlier this year. The mission had been a success until the attempted landing in the Sea of Serenity on April 11, when the probe crashed due to a “manual command” entered into the probe’s computer that temporarily shut off the main engine.

Still before-and-after images of the impact site. The streak from flying dust and rock (right image) points south, the same direction Beresheet was traveling when it struck the surface. Scale bar at right is 328 feet (100 meters) NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

That might have been the end of the story. But 11 days after the attempted landing, NASA’s eagle-eyed Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) passed over the crash site and captured photos of the impact. LRO took these before and after photos from 56 miles (90 km) above the surface. They show a dark smudge about 33 feet (10 meters) wide showing the point of impact. The dark tone would indicate terrain roughened by the hard landing; jumbled rocks are less reflective than a clean, smooth surface.

In the before-and-after photos, you can see a larger area roughly 130 feet (40 meters) across surrounding the dark smudge that’s 20 percent brighter than previous with a ray of (probable) impact dust and debris extending about 328 feet (100 meters) “downwind” from the crash site. The light halo could have formed from gas associated with the impact or from fine soil particles blown outward during Beresheet’s descent, which smoothed out the soil around the landing site, making it more reflective.

This very fresh crater was blasted out on April 14, 1970 by the 3rd stage of the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo 13 to the moon. NASA intentionally crashed this and other Apollo rocket boosters to create artificial moonquakes. Seismometers left there by astronauts registered the blasts, helping scientists probe the lunar interior. The crater’s about 100 feet across. The ejected material from beneath the surface forms lighter-colored blanked around the impact. Most moonquakes occur from the gravitational tidal forces between Earth and the moon. NASA

Spacecraft and rocket stages crashed into the moon often excavate their own craters. No crater appears in these images. Either it’s too small to see at LRO’s altitude or Beresheet’s low angle of approach (only 8.4°) coupled with its small mass and relatively slow speed left only an indent. LRO’s next opportunity to get better pictures happened on May 19, but those images, if any, have yet to be released.

A final selfie taken just a few minutes before communications were lost with Beresheet on April 11, 2019. SpaceIL

Scientists are always interested in fresh lunar impacts whether manmade or natural because each provides an opportunity to study the rate and types of surface weathering on the moon. Although it lacks wind and water — major agents of erosion on Earth — the gazillions of micrometeorites that strike the moon gradually weather down and change the appearance of the surface. Cosmic rays and high speed particle blasts from the sun darken the moon over time as well.

Although the Israeli craft failed in its final moments it was hardly a failure. What was learned this time around will inform the next mission, Beresheet 2, expected to launch in 2-3 years. Meanwhile, scientists will glean new data from the impact scar. Everything’s about keeping things in perspective.