Today, an Israeli spacecraft named Beresheet—Hebrew for “genesis”—attempted a soft landing on the Moon. But after grappling with a last-minute engine failure, the dishwasher-sized probe appears to have crashed into the rocky face of Earth’s satellite.
“Well, we didn't make it, but we definitely tried,” said Morris Kahn, chairman of SpaceIL, the nonprofit behind Beresheet, during a livestreamed press conference. “I think we can be proud.”
During its final approach, Beresheet’s main engine faltered. Though it initially seemed to recover, contact with the probe was lost shortly after. The expected landing time came and went and, through a livestreamed teleconference, scientists somberly declared the mission a failure.
Had it succeeded, Beresheet would have joined an exclusive lunar landing club populated by world superpowers Russia, China, and the United States—the only three nations to successfully touch a spacecraft down on the lunar surface. Beresheet’s original objective was to settle on Mare Serenitatis, or the Sea of Serenity, where it would have taken images and measured the magnetism of lunar rocks.
Built and launched on a shoestring budget of just under $100 million, Beresheet had little financial wiggle room to incorporate failsafe mechanisms aboard the craft, and SpaceIL was unable to conduct a full suite of preflight tests. Though the probe was programmed to land itself, it had only a single laser-based sensor to guide its descent, making the approach to the lunar surface an especially risky one.
Beresheet was originally intended for a much earlier launch, as an entry into the 2018 Google Lunar X Prize competition, a global race to send the first private spacecraft to the Moon. Though SpaceIL made it to the final round, none of the five finalists managed to launch their probes before the X Prize’s deadline of March 31, 2018. The race concluded with no winner—and no one to claim the $20 million grand prize.
With significant financial backing from private investors, however, Beresheet did eventually enter outer space on February 21. And the spacecraft’s construction, launch, and initial sojourn are still major accomplishments. As it meandered Moonward, the probe executed a series of widening orbits around Earth. Then, Beresheet began to orbit the Moon itself—making Israel the sixth nation, and seventh entity, to manage this feat, following in the footsteps of the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency.
It was only in the final few minutes that things went awry for Beresheet, when mission control lost communications with the spacecraft about 500 feet above the lunar surface. A final postmortem analysis has yet to be conducted—but Israeli officials and researchers remain optimistic, and are already thinking ahead to a second attempt.
“We unfortunately have not managed to land successfully,” Opher Doron, the general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division, said during the live broadcast. Regardless, he said, “it's a tremendous achievement up [until] now.”