Israel’s first moon mission lost moments before landing

The spacecraft’s engine cut out just before it was to touch down in the Sea of Serenity

Beresheet spacecraft

LAST LOOK The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet snapped this selfie during its final approach to the moon, just minutes before the spacecraft failed.

SpaceIL/Israel Aerospace Industries

Israel’s first lunar lander, Beresheet, appears to have crash-landed on the moon.

The spacecraft, launched by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, was scheduled to touch down on the lunar surface on April 11. But in the final few minutes of its descent, the spacecraft’s engine stalled. Mission control reset Beresheet to bring its engine back online, but then communication with the lander cut out.

“#Beresheet’s main engine fail! Spacecraft failed landing. Appeared to have crashed on the moon’s surface!” the Israel Space Agency tweeted at 3:30 p.m. EDT.

“We didn’t make it, but we definitely tried,” said SpaceIL Chairman Morris Kahn in an online livestream of the landing. “I think we can be proud.”

Had Beresheet arrived safely, Israel would have become the fourth country — following the United States, the former Soviet Union and China — to stick a lunar landing (SN: 11/24/18, p. 14). Still, Israel has now claimed seventh place in sending a spacecraft into orbit around the moon.

Launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., onboard a SpaceX rocket in February, Beresheet orbited Earth until meeting up with the moon in early April. After several lunar orbits, the spacecraft was set to park in the Sea of Serenity — a volcanic plain on the moon’s nearside, close to where Apollo 17 astronauts planted a flag in 1972.

Beresheet carried a handful of scientific instruments onboard, including cameras and a device to measure magnetic fields. But science was only SpaceIL’s No. 2 priority for their small, scrappy spacecraft. The primary goal of Beresheet was a successful landing that would help create an “Apollo Effect” to inspire Israeli students to pursue science and engineering. The mission even inspired a children’s book, The Little Spacecraft.

This isn’t the end for an Israeli mission to the moon, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again.”

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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