A small spacecraft that has captured the imagination and excitement of people in Israel and around the world appears to have crashed on the moon.
“We have a failure of the spacecraft,” said Opher Doron, general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries’ space division, which collaborated on building the spacecraft. The mood at the control center was somber but still celebratory.
“Well we didn’t make it, but we definitely tried,” said Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur and president of SpaceIL, the nonprofit that undertook the mission. “I think we can be proud.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who attended the event at the mission’s command center in Yehud, Israel, said, “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again.”
If it had succeeded, the robotic lander, named Beresheet, which means “Genesis,” or “in the beginning,” in Hebrew, would have been the first on the moon by a private organization, and it would have added Israel to just three nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union and China — to have accomplished that feat.
Beresheet reached the launchpad and was headed to space aboard a SpaceX rocket in February. It orbited the moon, by itself a major accomplishment. That has only been done by five nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, Japan and India — and the European Space Agency. But the landing was the riskiest part of the mission.
But the spacecraft stumbled on the last part of its journey. On the way down, the main engine cut out. The engine was successfully restarted, but then communications were cut off, and no more information was sent back.
The appointed landing time came and passed, and the SpaceIL team realized the mission was over.
The mission cost about $100 million, far less than government-sponsored spacecraft that have been to the moon. Its failure to land in one piece highlighted that these small missions are also inherently riskier and that their backers must be willing to accept periodic failures
Beresheet aimed to set down within the northeastern section of a lava plain known as the Sea of Serenity, chosen largely because it is flat with few craters.
After firing up its main engine to slow its speed, the spacecraft began its descent of no return, guided by a laser that measured its altitude. “It’s a system that was quite challenging in the development and arrived quite late,” Doron said Wednesday. That limited the amount of testing.