Israeli Moon Lander Phones Home, Deploys Legs

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches Beresheet lunar lander
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the Beresheet lunar lander and two other spacecraft on the night of Feb. 21, 2019. (Image credit: SpaceX)

A historic Israeli moon mission appears to be going well so far, though one possible hiccup has cropped up.

The Beresheet robotic lunar lander launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket yesterday evening (Feb. 21), on a mission to become the first privately funded craft — and the first developed by any entity other than the Soviet Union, the United States or China — to land on the moon. 

That touchdown try won't take place until April 11. But Beresheet is doing well in the early stages of its trek, its builders said today (Feb. 22). [Israel's 1st Moon Lander Beresheet in Pictures]

"Initial data was received in the control room in Yehud [Israel], the spacecraft’s legs deployed as planned and Beresheet started in-orbit tests while cruising to the moon," Nimrod Sheffer, CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), said in a statement.

Those first two milestones were checked off within 2 minutes of each other, about 40 minutes after the 8:45 p.m. EST (0145 GMT on Feb. 22) liftoff, mission team members said.

However, the in-orbit tests "have revealed high sensitivity to blinding by the sun’s rays in the star trackers," team members said in the statement, adding that the issue is being checked. (Star trackers are key to navigation; they allow a spacecraft's orientation to be determined.)

Beresheet, whose name means "in the beginning" in Hebrew, is a joint project of IAI and the nonprofit organization SpaceIL. The 5-foot-tall (1.5 meters) lander will do a bit of science work during its two-Earth-day surface mission. But the mission's main goals are to put Israel firmly on the spaceflight map and to inspire young people, especially in that tiny nation, to get excited about science, technology, engineering and math.

Beresheet also carries a time capsule that contains, among other items, a "lunar library" provided by the Arch Mission Foundation, which seeks to preserve human knowledge for eons by storing it in various off-Earth locales. The library holds a great deal of information about human culture and society, including the entire English-language version of Wikipedia, project team members have said.

SpaceIL started out as a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million moon race that sought to spur development of the private space sector. The prize expired last year without a winner, but SpaceIL (and several other former teams) kept working on their missions.

Beresheet is helping to blaze a trail for low-cost private space exploration. The mission's total cost, including launch, is about $100 million, team members have said. 

SpaceIL and IAI kept the price tag so low in part by sharing a ride on the Falcon 9, which lofted two other spacecraft to Earth orbit last night as well. This helps explain why Beresheet is taking such a long and circuitous route to the moon — the lander didn't have its own dedicated rocket to launch it on a direct path.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate) is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.