An Israeli spacecraft crashed into the moon just moments before touchdown, failing in an ambitious attempt to make history as the first privately funded lunar landing. It had been hoped that the small robotic spacecraft, built by the nonprofit SpaceIL and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, would match a feat that has been achieved only by U.S., Russia and China.
The spacecraft lost communication with ground control during its final descent. Moments later, the mission was declared a failure. “We definitely crashed on the surface of the moon,” said Opher Doron of Israel Aerospace Industries.
He said the spacecraft’s engine turned off shortly before landing, and scientists were still trying to figure out the cause. The spacecraft, called Beresheet, was in pieces scattered at the landing site, he said.
Israel was set to become the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China to land on the moon, but with the setback, Indian ISRO is back in the race to become the fourth nation to land a rover on the moon with Chandrayaan-2 project.
Doron nonetheless called the mission an “amazing success,” for reaching the moon and coming so close to landing successfully. “It is by far the smallest, cheapest spacecraft ever to get to the moon,” he said. Beresheet was about the size of a washing machine. The mishap occurred in front of a packed audience that included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and was broadcast live on national television.
“We will try again,” Netanyahu said. “We reached the moon, but we want to land more comfortably, and that is for the next time.”
The failure was a disappointing ending to a 6.5 million kilometer lunar voyage, almost unprecedented in length, that was designed to conserve fuel and reduce the price. The spacecraft hitched a ride on a SpaceX rocket launched from Florida in February.
For the past two months, Beresheet, which means “Genesis” or “In the Beginning,” traveled around the Earth several times before entering lunar orbit.
Around 20 minutes before the scheduled landing, engine firings slowed Beresheet’s descent. Engineers watched in silence as the craft, its movements streamed live on dozens of screens, glided toward a free-fall.
But then the screens showed the engine misfiring, and the velocity surging as it headed toward the lunar surface. Radio signals from the spacecraft abruptly cut off. Standing before darkened computer screens, controllers declared the mission a failure. The craft crashed near the historic Apollo landing sites.
President Reuven Rivlin hosted dozens of youngsters at his official residence, one of several celebrations scheduled across the country. The children, some wearing white and blue spacesuits, appeared confused as the crash unfolded.