Israel's Beresheet Lunar Lander is About to Arrive on the Surface of the Moon

SpaceIL, Beresheet, moon
An illustration shows the Beresheet lander, the moon and the Earth. SpaceIL / National Geographic

At about 5 p.m. EDT Thursday, an unmanned Israeli spacecraft will attempt to become the first lander funded by a private company to touch down on the moon, two months after launching from Florida's Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX rocket.

If the landing is successful, Beresheet will also take the prize for being the smallest and cheapest spacecraft to achieve the feat. Furthermore, it will make Israel the fourth nation—and the smallest by quite a distance—to land a spacecraft on the moon, along with the United States, China and Russia (when it was part of the Soviet Union).

"I think with this mission we have opened up the glass ceiling of exploring the universe for humanity in general," Kfir Damari, co-founder of SpaceIL, the company that built Beresheet, told Newsweek. "We have also made Israel the seventh country ever to orbit the moon and, hopefully by tonight, the fourth country to actually land on the moon."

He added: "If you look at what's happening in the space industry in general now, you have private organizations doing things that only government did before. We actually had the pleasure to launch our spacecraft with SpaceX, which I think is also an amazing example of this, and now we're taking that to a new level, being the first private organization to reach the moon and hopefully land there."

Beresheet was built in collaboration with Israel Aerospace Industries and the Israel Space Agency for a cost of just $100 million, cheap for this kind of mission, largely because the vehicle has not been equipped with backup systems. Unusually, the project was also entirely funded by private donors, including prominent philanthropists such as South African–born billionaire Morris Kahn.

"We were initially aiming for a much smaller spacecraft based on satellite technology. The problem was that when we started with the engineering, we couldn't find an engine that was small enough but had sufficient power to allow us to safely land on the moon," Damari said. "So the spacecraft had to grow a few times, and now the weight is a bit more than half a ton. It's the size of a dining table."

He added: "What we've done with the project is use space technology that already existed in Israel, but we took it to the next level. And instead of building a satellite, we built a spacecraft."

If everything goes to plan, Beresheet should touch down on the moon somewhere between 4:30 and 5 p.m. EDT in the lunar region known as the Sea of Tranquility.

"Yesterday we did a maneuver to lower the spacecraft, and what we're going to do today is lower it again," Damari said. "Starting from about 25 kilometers [15.5 miles] and traveling at a speed of 1,700 meters per second, we're going to reduce the height. It's going to use the main engine to make sure that this is a controlled fall, taking us to a steady speed. Eventually, this is going to get us just a few meters above the ground with zero velocity—we're basically hovering—and then the engines will shut off and the craft will fall the last few meters."

He added: "In the last two months, we've been controlling the spacecraft from Earth—from Israel—but the landing itself is actually totally autonomous," he said. "So we're giving the command to start, but the spacecraft must do it by itself. We'll wait and see how it goes."

The project began in 2010 when Damari, along with Yonatan Winetraub and Yariv Bash, founded SpaceIL to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which challenged participating teams to "land a privately funded rover on the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high-definition video and images" for a chance at winning $20 million. The prize was eventually scrapped, but the three young engineers decided to continue developing the spacecraft.

"For me it actually started on Facebook when a friend wrote to me saying he wanted to open the Israeli team to compete in the X Prize," Damari said. "I told him that 'if you're serious, I'm in.' The three of us met in a bar in the city of Holon, Israel, and over a couple of beers we took out a paper and started drawing what the spacecraft was going to look like."

He went on: "Right now I'm feeling a combination of all emotions: super-excited, nervous to see what's going to happen, and tired after a long, long journey. It's not just the last two months since the launch; it's been eight and a half years that we've been working to make this moment happen. Hopefully, when the landing is successful, we'll have so much joy in our veins that the challenges and problems we've had to overcome will look different."

If the landing is successful, the mission is expected to last just a couple of days before the spacecraft succumbs to the sun's rays. But in that time, the team hopes to gain some valuable insights.

"We're going to study the magnetic field of the moon," Damari said. "We have also partnered with NASA, who want information from this experiment, and they also gave us another component that we added to the spacecraft which will enable them to take measurements."

He continued: "The mission itself is not going to be very long—about two to three days–because we're landing when the temperatures are really nice. But as time goes by, it's going to become very hot, and we're not planning for the electronics to survive."

During the project's development, the SpaceIL team met with more than 1 million kids to tell them about their story. "We've been telling them that science can be exciting and cool, and that they should dream big and follow their dream," Damari said. "We'll send lots of videos and images to inspire the kids in Israel and all around the world."

While the spacecraft is not expected to last long, it will be equipped with a time capsule—containing about 50,000 books, songs and photos (in electronic form)—as well as some "surprises."

"We like to tell the kids that if they want to know what's in there, they just need to build a spacecraft and fly to the moon and find out themselves," Damari said.

"Rookie Moonshot: Budget Mission to the Moon"​ airs on National Geographic later this month.

SpaceIL, Beresheet, moon
An illustration shows the Beresheet lander, the moon and the Earth. SpaceIL / National Geographic
Israel's Beresheet Lunar Lander is About to Arrive on the Surface of the Moon | Tech & Science