An ultra-exclusive club located more than 200,000 miles away from Earth is on the verge of welcoming its newest member.
On April 11, the Israeli Beresheet spacecraft, will begin its descent to the lunar surface. (Beresheet means "genesis" or "in the beginning" in Hebrew.) A successful touchdown would make it not only the first private spacecraft to execute a soft landing on the moon, but also only the fourth nation to pull off the feat after the Soviet Union, the United States and China.
For SpaceIL, the Israeli nonprofit that developed the Beresheet, reaching lunar soil will be a goal nearly a decade in the making.
"It's going to be the conclusion of 8 1/2 years of really hard work," Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL, the nonprofit that developed the Beresheet spacecraft, told From The Grapevine, one of MNN's sister sites. "When we started it, we had no idea if it was actually going to succeed."
The quest to attempt landing a private spacecraft on the moon was spurred by Google's decision in 2007 to launch the Lunar X Prize. The competition, which dangled $30 million in prizes as a lure, challenged teams from around the world to place a robotic spacecraft on the moon, move it some 1,640 feet (500 meters), and have it relay high-definition photos and video back to Earth.
In 2011, Winetraub — along with co-founders Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari — answered the call and formed SpaceIL. The Lunar X Prize ended in March 2018 without a winner, but SpaceIL was so far along on Beresheet that they decided to keep moving forward. Their determination to help democratize the space race inspired donations to pour in from people and organizations with very deep pockets.
"I wanted to show that Israel — this little country with a population of about 6 or 8 million people — could actually do a job that was only done by three major powers in the world: Russia, China, and the United States," Morris Kahn, a South African-born entrepreneur billionaire who lives in Israel and donated tens of millions to the project, told Business Insider. "Could Israel innovate and actually achieve this objective with a smaller budget, and being a smaller country, and without a big space industry backing it?"
On April 4, after launching six weeks earlier on a SpaceX Falcon 9, the Beresheet slipped into orbit around the moon.
"The lunar capture is a historic event in and of itself — but it also joins Israel in a seven-nation club that has entered the moon's orbit," Kahn, who now chairs SpaceIL, said in a statement.
Leading up to April 11, the spacecraft will perform a number of orbital maneuvers that will place it ever close to its landing site in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon's northern hemisphere. This 500 mile-wide lunar plane is notable for having been the landing site of Apollo 11 and astronaut Neil Armstrong's historic first step.
"We won’t land next to Apollo missions," Winetraub told From The Grapevine, allaying fears that Beresheet's landing might disturb a piece of human history. "The moon is big and there is enough space for everyone."
Once on the surface, Beresheet's science-gathering options will be limited to recording lunar magnetic fields using its onboard magnetometer. Due to its lack of thermal protections, its expected its communication instruments will succumb to the moon's extreme daytime temperatures, which run in excess of 200 degrees Fahrenheit, in only two days.
Despite its short lifespan, Beresheet does have one instrument that's expected to function for a decade or longer. Called the "laser retroreflector" and developed by NASA, this little mouse-sized device resides on top of the lander and is composed of eight radiation-resistant mirrors set in a dome-shaped aluminum frame.
NASA intends to use its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to shoot laser pulses at the retroreflector and determine its precise location, according to Leonard David of Space.com.
"NASA is interested in dotting the moon with many such retro-reflectors in the future," David explains. "These would serve as permanent 'fiducial markers' on the moon, meaning future craft could use them as points of reference to make precision landings."
Much like the time capsule left behind by the Apollo 11 astronauts, the SpaceIL team included their own digital version to be left on the surface of the moon. Contained within the three laser-etched discs is a 30 million-page archive of human history and civilization.
"This is a very emotional moment," Winetraub said in a statement. "We do not know how long the spacecraft and the time capsule will remain on the moon. It is very possible that future generations will find this information and want to learn more about this historic moment."
According to SpaceIL, the Beresheet's landing on the moon will be broadcast live sometime in the afternoon (EDT) of April 11. Details for the live streams will be made available via the company's twitter feed and will be carried on MNN's social channels.