WASHINGTON — SpaceIL announced April 4 that its Beresheet spacecraft has entered orbit around the moon, setting the stage for a landing attempt in a week.
The lander fired its main engine for six minutes starting at 10:18 a.m. Eastern time, slowing the spacecraft down by about 1,000 kilometers per hour, enough for it to be captured into orbit around the moon. SpaceIL said in a statement that that maneuver went as expected, putting the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit with a perilune of 500 kilometers and apolune of 10,000 kilometers.
“After six weeks in space, we have succeeded in overcoming another critical stage by entering the moon’s gravity,” said Ido Anteby, chief executive of SpaceIL, in a statement. “We still have a long way until the lunar landing, but I’m convinced our team will complete the mission to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon, making us all proud.”
Beresheet launched Feb. 21 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which released the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit around the Earth. The spacecraft subsequently performed a series of maneuvers to raise the apogee of its orbit to more than 400,000 kilometers. That put the spacecraft on a trajectory to approach the moon and, after this latest maneuver, enter orbit around it.
Beresheet will later move into a circular orbit 200 kilometers high in preparation for its landing attempt, scheduled for April 11. The spacecraft will try to touch down softly on Mare Serenitatis, or Sea of Serenity, in the northern hemisphere of the near side of the moon.
If successful, Israel will become only the fourth nation to make a soft landing on the moon, after the former Soviet Union, the United States and China. Israel is the seventh nation to orbit the moon, counting the three nations that have landed as well as India, Japan and the European Space Agency.
The $100 million project started as an effort by a small organization, SpaceIL, to win the Google Lunar X Prize while also stimulating interest in science and engineering among Israeli students. With funding largely from philanthropic sources, SpaceIL contracted with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to build the lander. That work continued even though the $20 million grand prize in the competition expired a year ago when sponsor Google declined to grant another extension.
“Even before Beresheet was launched, it already was a national success story that shows our groundbreaking technological capabilities,” said Nimrod Sheffer, chief executive of IAI, in the statement. The company is offering versions of the Beresheet lander for other customers, and announced an agreement with German company OHB in January to study its use for future ESA missions.
Even though the Google Lunar X Prize has expired, SpaceIL could win a consolation prize. The X Prize Foundation announced March 28 that it will award a $1 million “Moonshot Prize” to SpaceIL if Beresheet successfully lands on the moon.