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.
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.
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.
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.