by Jeff Foust —
WASHINGTON — As SpaceIL continues its investigation into its failed lunar landing attempt April 11, its backers as well as others in the space community remain optimistic about efforts to privately develop such spacecraft despite technical challenges.
In an April 12 statement, SpaceIL said a technical problem in an unspecified component triggered a “chain of events” that shut down the Beresheet lander’s main engine during its descent to the lunar surface, dooming the mission.
That initial problem took place when Beresheet was at an altitude of 14 kilometers. The statement doesn’t discuss the specific issue or others that led to the engine malfunction, but during the webcast from mission control officials mentioned at one point a problem with an inertial measurement unit on the lander.
The lander was able to restart its main engine, according to the statement, but “by that time, its velocity was too high to slow down and the landing could not be completed as planned.” Telemetry was lost permanently from the lander at an altitude of 150 meters, showing the spacecraft was descending at 500 kilometers per hour, far too fast for a soft landing.
SpaceIL said that “comprehensive tests” are planned for next week to better understand the events that led to the failed landing, but didn’t give a timetable for releasing more details about the cause of the landing.
SpaceIL, a non-profit organization funded primarily philanthropically, initially planned to build a very small lander as a competitor in the Google Lunar X Prize. The spacecraft grew in size and cost over time, resulting in a spacecraft weighing nearly 600 kilograms at launch and with a total cost of about $100 million.
Both SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the company that built Beresheet for SpaceIL, received widespread praise for coming very close to a successful landing. “Every attempt to reach new milestones holds opportunities for us to learn, adjust and progress,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement after the failed landing. “I have no doubt that Israel and SpaceIL will continue to explore and I look forward to celebrating their future achievements.”
“This is a tremendous technological achievement for the State of Israel, which is now among only seven superpowers who have reached this close to the moon,” said Harel Locker, chairman of IAI, in a statement. “This project lasted eight years and contributed significantly to the Israeli space industry, which today became one of the leading space industries in the world.”
The failure, though, does emphasize the technical challenges of getting to the moon, an issue that looms over other companies planning similar feats. This includes the nine companies participating in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. Of those nine companies, only one, Lockheed Martin, has extensive experience in developing lander missions, although a second company, Draper, has heritage dating back to the Apollo lunar landers. The others are dominated by startups that, in most cases, have yet to launch any spacecraft into space, let alone develop a lander.
When NASA announced the CLPS program last year, agency officials emphasized that they understood the risks and that not every mission would be successful. “Our hope is to take one or two shots on goal every year,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, at a meeting of the Space Studies Board last May. “A reasonable expectation is a 50 percent success rate at the beginning. It’s not zero, and it’s not 100.”
“Space is hard, but worth the risks. If we succeeded every time, there would be no reward,” Zurbuchen tweeted after the failed Beresheet landing. He congratulated SpaceIL for coming close to a landing, and said he would visit Israel later this year to discuss potential future cooperation. “We’re looking forward to future opportunities to explore the Moon together.”
SpaceIL originally intended Beresheet to be a one-time mission, with a goal not to enable a sustainable commercial business of missions to the moon but instead to inspire Israeli students to pursue science and engineering careers. However, IAI has said it’s interested in future commercial opportunities for landers based on Beresheet, including an agreement in January with German company OHB to study the use of such landers for future European Space Agency missions.
Meir Nissim Nir, director of advanced space systems at IAI, said at the Microsymposium 60 lunar exploration workshop last month outside Houston that those landers could be ready for missions as soon as late 2020 if contracts were signed soon and the work done in Israel. He also said the company was looking at potential American partners that would make the company eligible for future rounds of the CLPS program, which requires landers to be built in the United States.
“We are now speaking with several groups about teaming up and doing it from the States,” he said. “This will, of course, take a little bit longer, but that’s a viable opportunity.”
Among those who were in SpaceIL mission control to observe the landing was Benjamin Netanyahu, who was reelected earlier in the week for another term as prime minister of Israel. “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again,” he said in remarks after the failed landing, suggesting another mission, financed this time by the Israeli government, might be flown in the next few years.