Israel's first lunar lander has managed to get itself out to the moon's neighborhood.
The robotic spacecraft, known as Beresheet, fired its main engine for about 60 seconds in Earth orbit today (March 19), project team members said. The maneuver raised Beresheet's orbit substantially, pushing its apogee, or farthest point from Earth, out to 251,655 miles (405,000 kilometers).
"That's [high] enough to reach the distance of the moon from the Earth, and it's actually our last maneuver to get closer to the moon," Opher Doron, space division general manager at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), said in an update today. (IAI and the nonprofit organization SpaceIL jointly run Beresheet's mission.)
"We are on the way to the moon very successfully right now," Doron added.
The mission team will perform a few smaller maneuvers over the coming days to tweak Beresheet's elliptical path slightly, he said. But the lander remains on course to be captured into orbit around the moon on April 4, and to land on April 11.
That will be a historic touchdown. To date, only three superpowers — the Soviet Union, the United States and China — have managed to land a spacecraft softly on the moon. And Beresheet is doing things on the cheap; the mission's total cost, including launch, is about $100 million, team members have said.
Beresheet (whose name means "in the beginning" in Hebrew) began as an entrant in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, which challenged privately funded teams to land a robot on the moon and perform a few tasks there. The contest ended in March 2018 without a winner, but SpaceIL and IAI continued to work on their lander, as did some other former entrants.
The 5-foot-tall (1.5 meters) Beresheet will gather some science data on and around the moon, but its main goal is to advance Israel's space program and spark young people's interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
Beresheet has encountered a few problems since its Feb. 21 launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. For example, the mission team found that the spacecraft's star trackers, which are crucial for navigation, are surprisingly susceptible to blinding by solar radiation. And Beresheet suffered an unexpected computer reset last month, which pushed a planned engine firing back a few days.
But Beresheet has powered its way through such issues to date.
Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.