In an emotional and historic moment for Israel, the Beresheet unmanned spacecraft dreamed up by the nonprofit organization SpaceIL launched flawlessly in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 8:45pm February 21 (3:45am February 22 Israel time).
The famed countdown was recited in English in Florida, and in Hebrew at Israel Aerospace Industries’ control center in Yehud. The liftoff of the first nongovernmental mission to the Moon, and the first to use a commercial launch, was watched live by tens of thousands of people on Facebook and YouTube.
???? Here it is, in case you missed it! History in the making, as Israel launches SpaceIL, aiming to become only the 4th nation to land on the moon! All of Israel is just so tremendously proud right now! ???????? ???? ????"בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה׃"
Posted by Arsen Ostrovsky on Thursday, 21 February 2019
Comments and congratulations poured in from viewers in Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Ecuador, South Africa, India and the United States from New York to Montana, among other points on the globe, as Beresheet sped into space and separated from the launcher at 9:20 Florida time.
Six minutes later, right on schedule, the spacecraft was fully deployed and under the management of the IAI control center, beginning a seven-to-eight-week journey toward touchdown on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility.
Successful deployment of the SpaceIL lunar lander confirmed, starting the spacecraft’s two-month voyage to the Moon pic.twitter.com/iMlVYJHef3
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 22, 2019
Inscribed on the craft are the words “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the nation of Israel lives”) and inside is a time capsule containing digital files including a nano Bible, Israeli national symbols and children’s drawings.
The craft also carries instruments to measure the magnetic field of the Moon to help determine its origins.
Jubilant SpaceIL founders Yonatan Winetraub and Kfir Damari were on site at Cape Canaveral along with key personnel from SpaceIL and IAI and funders of the $100 million mission. Their cofounder, Yariv Bash, was in Yehud along with dignitaries including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
‘Three engineers walk into a bar’
The night before the launch, Winetraub related to reporters how he, Bash and Damari first discussed the idea of a Moon mission over drinks in a pub in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.
“Three engineers walk into a bar and come out with the design of a spaceship,” said Winetraub. “Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this is what happened about eight and a half years ago.”
Full-scale development started in 2015, originally as part of the Google LunarX Prize competition. When the competition was aborted in March 2018, SpaceIL and its donors decided to continue anyway.
Their vision was not only to reach outer space but also to reach the hearts of children.
Through a cadre of volunteers and a range of educational materials, over the past eight years SpaceIL has interacted directly with more than a million schoolchildren – mainly in Israel but also across the United States – with the goal of building enthusiasm for science and engineering.
“This is our biggest vision. We believe Beresheet [the Hebrew word for “in the beginning,” the first word in the Bible] is only the beginning — the first Israeli spacecraft but hopefully not the last,” said Damari.
“We got so many videos in the last few days from kids and schools wishing for us to succeed. Kids always ask us if the craft is coming back and we say ‘No, it stays there with the time capsule and all kinds of interesting things inside. It’s your job to reach the Moon and bring it back.’”
If Beresheet lands successfully, Israel will be the fifth country to plant its flag on the Moon, following the USSR (1966), USA (1969), India (2008) and China (2013). Israel would be the fourth country to soft-land on the Moon; India’s mission was an impact probe.
In contrast to those large countries, Israel is tiny, with a population of less than 9 million. In keeping with that theme, Beresheet is the smallest spacecraft ever sent to the Moon.
Fully fueled, Beresheet weighs 585 kilograms (1,290 pounds) and its dry weight is just 160kg (353 pounds). Compare that to the Chang’e 3 unmanned mission sent up by China in 2013, with a lander weighing 1,200kg (2,600 pounds) plus a 140kg (310 pound) rover. Beresheet’s diameter, when fully deployed with landing gear and legs, is 2.3 meters (7.5 feet).
Masters of miniaturization
How and why did Israelis become experts in building tiny space-bound crafts?
The miniaturization success story begins with Israel’s determination to launch its own communication satellites despite huge affordability and geopolitical obstacles, explains Raz Itzhaki, cofounder and CEO of nanosatellite startup NSLComm and former manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ nanosatellite department.
“Israel cannot launch satellites to the east, even though it’s better to launch in the direction the Earth revolves, because part of the launcher will fall on areas that could create conflict. But when you launch to the west, your carrying capacity decreases dramatically by 30 percent. So we were forced to either abandon the option of launching satellites ourselves or to build smaller satellites,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
“Israeli satellites for many years were world leaders in performance per size. Nanosatellites are a natural extension of that.”
And so is Beresheet. Itzhaki headed the Israeli Nanosatellite Association (INSA), founded in 2005; INSA member Yonatan Winetraub became one of three cofounders of SpaceIL in 2011.
“So the idea for the first Israeli spaceship that would go to the Moon began as Yonatan’s idea to send a small 3kg satellite to the Moon,” says Itzhaki, who wrote some of the SpaceIL educational material and helped train teachers.
Satellites weren’t the only technology to be miniaturized in a revolutionary way by Israelis, he points out. For example, the Israeli-developed DiskOnKey flash drive completely replaced large floppy disks.
“Israel has always been good at creating new ideas and achieving new levels of efficiency and developing new things that, after being invented in Israel, were adopted all over the world. We are limited in resources but we have one resource that is not limited, which is our brain,” Izhaki says.
NSLComm’s first “space seeds” — miniature satellites that can be launched 30 or more on a single launcher and grow to full size once in orbit — are scheduled to launch from Russia on May 8, 2019, which happens to be Israeli Independence Day.
“All of this was possible because of generous investments from JVP, Liberty Global, OurCrowd and El Al, and the support of the Israeli Space Agency,” says Itzhaki.
Similarly, SpaceIL couldn’t have made it to the launchpad without support from IAI and ISA and $100 million in donations from Israeli and North American philanthropists led by Morris Kahn.
However, emphasizes Itzhaki, “nothing happens without hashgacha [divine providence].”
The challenges ahead
And now, as Beresheet heads toward its final destination, both hashgacha and sophisticated technical expertise will be needed to overcome major challenges.
Unlike Apollo rockets that went straight to the Moon, SpaceIL couldn’t choose Beresheet’s orbit since it was launched on a ride-share. The craft must orbit the Earth several times before entering “phasing loops” around the Moon.
The trickiest challenge will be the lunar capture maneuver scheduled for April 4, said Yigal Harel, head of the SpaceIL engineering group.
Lunar capture requires coordinating the phasing loops with the revolution of the Moon so that Beresheet can be captured into the lunar orbit and held there by gravity. To land on approximately April 11, the craft will have to slow down from 6,000 kilometers per hour to zero.
“The craft is designed to work on the Moon for four Earth days,” said Harel.
Beresheet is expected to transmit panoramic and “selfie” pictures, videos and scientific measurements, and – perhaps most importantly — plant a blue-and-white Israeli flag on the Moon.