Three engineers walk into a bar to design a spaceship … but the ending of that sentence is no joke. Eight years ago, those three engineers were friends who shared a common dream of reaching the moon. Today a SpaceX rocket will ship their washing-machine-sized spacecraft off to our closest neighbor—a first for private industry.
The spacecraft, dubbed Beresheet (the Hebrew word for “the beginning”), is slated to lift off at 8:45 pm ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. If successful, the lander will be the first Israeli spacecraft to travel beyond Earth orbit, and also the first (mostly) privately funded spacecraft to touch down on the lunar surface.
This mission could be the start of a new era in spaceflight—one in which companies can go to destinations that previously only nations and government agencies could access. To date, just three nations have landed on the Moon: the United States, Russia, and China. (Earlier this year, China landed a robotic spacecraft on the moon’s far side, a first for any nation.)
Getting to the moon is not an easy task, nor a cheap one. Until now, only governments have had the money (and technology) to pull off a feat as ambitious as a lunar landing. But with the rise of commercial launch providers and as the cost of accessing space continues to drop, that stranglehold has loosened. More private companies may soon venture beyond Earth.
The Beresheet lander is a joint venture between Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL—one of the participants in the Google Lunar X Prize, which challenged private companies to land spacecraft on the moon without government funds—and Israel Aerospace Industries, the country’s largest aerospace and defense company. The contest ended without a winner in 2018 as none of the contestants could reach the moon by the specified deadline. That didn’t stop SpaceIL. As one of five finalists in the competition, SpaceIL continued developing the lander that will fly today.
Beresheet is not the only payload hitching a ride on today’s rocket, a Falcon 9. Two other satellites will accompany the little lander on its journey to space: An Indonesian communications satellite called Nusantara Satu and an experimental US Air Force satellite will also pack in for the ride. This cosmic carpool was orchestrated by Spaceflight Industries, a company dedicated to ensuring smaller satellites are matched with their perfect ride to space.
Arranging a rideshare, as Spaceflight did, is one way to mitigate the cost of spaceflight, enabling more people to get off the ground. And SpaceX’s flagship rocket—the Falcon 9—has proven it can send multiple satellites into space and deposit them in their appropriate orbits. But it has never before sent a payload to the moon.
That ride will take Beresheet only as far as Earth’s orbit. After Beresheet separates from the rocket, the lander will spend the next two months traveling through space before attempting a landing on the lunar surface. During its trek through space, the little lander will have to swing by Earth multiple times in order to gain the velocity needed to reach the moon. With each close pass, Beresheet will fire its engines, stretching out its orbit. The goal is to be in the right place in the moon’s orbit at the right time so that the little lander can be captured by the moon’s gravity. If the mission goes as planned, on April 11 Beresheet will be the first commercial vehicle to land on the moon (or any other planetary body).
Temperatures on the Moon are extreme. As such, Beresheet is only expected to last two or three Earth days, which is not terrible considering the entire mission cost roughly $100 million. The spacecraft’s onboard equipment will measure the moon’s magnetic field during and after landing and study surrounding lunar craters. SpaceIL officials say that the data collected will help scientists learn more about the creation of the moon. The lander is also equipped with a camera that will take video during the landing and beam back some epic selfies.
Under the original terms of the Google Lunar X Prize (valued at $30 million), after landing, Beresheet would have hopped to a new location at least 500 meters away. On Wednesday evening, SpaceIL officials said that they hadn’t decided if they will execute the hop or not, given that the maneuver is inherently risky.
SpaceIL isn’t the only outfit hoping to reach the moon. India is also planning on launching a lander, dubbed Chandrayaan-2, to the moon in April. And some of the other members of SpaceIL’s Google Lunar X Prize cohort are also still pursuing the moon. Astrobotic has aspirations of becoming a lunar delivery service, ferrying scientific instruments to the moon, and Moon Express is focused on mining the moon’s resources.
Assuming the launch is successful, SpaceX plans to recover the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket. The booster is expected to touch down on the company’s droneship, named Of Course I Still Love You, in the Atlantic Ocean, marking the end of the third flight for this particular Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX is also hoping that its floating catcher’s mitt, a boat named Mr. Steven, will finally snag a fairing (the rocket’s nose cone) as it falls back to Earth. Each fairing—a $6 million piece of hardware—accounts for a tenth of the price of the entire Falcon 9 rocket, and SpaceX says it can save a bundle if it scoops up the fairing before it lands in the ocean.
Earlier this month, SpaceX moved Mr. Steven from its home in the Port of Los Angeles to Port Canaveral, presumably to get more practice catching as SpaceX’s Florida launch site is busier than its West Coast counterpart. Mr. Steven spent the past few days practicing with a helicopter that dropped fairings from above and warming up for what could be an epic night. To date, no catches have been made, but with each attempt Mr. Steven inches closer to its ultimate goal: a successful catch. Perhaps this is the night.
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