As Beresheet heads to moon, Israeli team probes problem with navigation sensors

Officials say glare from sun causing more trouble than expected in spacecraft’s ability to orient itself, but claim the issue is a minor one and shouldn’t affect mission

A computer simulation shows the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet's position after launch (YouTube screenshot)
A computer simulation shows the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet's position after launch (YouTube screenshot)

After the successful launch of the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet into space, the team in the control room was looking into a small problem with its star navigation system on Friday.

The Israeli team said glare from the sun on the spacecraft’s sensors was making it more difficult than expected for the spacecraft to orient itself according to the position of the stars as it prepared for its first orbit around the Earth, the first stage of its slow seven-week journey to the moon.

However, the team said it believed the issue was a minor one, and said there were other ways for the craft to maneuver itself into a correct path.

The spacecraft was successfully launched Thursday night by SpaceX.

A communications satellite for Indonesia was the main cargo aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, which illuminated the sky as it took flight. But Israel’s privately funded lunar lander — a first not just for Israel but commercial space — generated the buzz.

Israel seeks to become only the fourth country to successfully land on the moon, after Russia, the US and China. The spacecraft — called Beresheet, Hebrew for Genesis or “In The Beginning” — will take nearly two months to reach the moon.

“We thought it’s about time for a change, and we want to get little Israel all the way to the moon,” said Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of Israel’s SpaceIL, a nonprofit organization behind the effort.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifting off with the Beresheet spacecraft on February 22, 2019, as seen on the command center screens in Yehud, Israel. (SpaceIL)

The moon, nearly full and glowing brightly, beckoned as it rose in the eastern sky. Within an hour after liftoff, Beresheet was already sending back data and had successfully deployed its landing legs, according to SpaceIL.

“We’ll keep analyzing the data, but bottom line is we entered the very exclusive group of countries that have launched a spacecraft to the moon,” said Yigal Harel, head of SpaceIL’s spacecraft program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was watching the launch live from the Israeli control center in Yehud, near Tel Aviv.

“This is a big step for Israel, but a giant step for Israeli technology,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife Sarah and South African philanthropist Morris Kahn watch the launch of the Beresheet spacecraft from the Yehud command center on February 22, 2019. (SpaceIL)

The four-legged Beresheet, barely the size of a washing machine, will circle Earth in ever bigger loops until it’s captured by lunar gravity and goes into orbit around the moon. Touchdown would be April 11 at the Sea of Serenity.

In this file photo taken on December 17, 2018, Israel Aerospace Industries space division director Opher Doron stands in front of the Beresheet spacecraft during a presentation by Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and Israeli state-owned IAI, in Yehud, east of Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)

NASA’s Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s took about three days to get astronauts to the moon, but they used monstrous Saturn V rockets. The $100 million Beresheet mission couldn’t afford its own rocket — even a little one — so the organizers opted for a ride share. That makes for a much longer trip; the moon right now is nearly 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) away.

The Beresheet mission originally was part of the Google Lunar XPrize competition and even made the final cut before the contest ended last year without a winner. The organizers decided to press ahead on their own, with donations from billionaires as well as schoolchildren.

SpaceIL’s spacecraft set to land on the moon in April is about 5 feet tall with a diameter of 6.5 feet. (Courtesy of SpaceIL)

Lunar surface operations are meant to last just two days. Beresheet will measure the magnetic field at the landing site, and send back data and pictures. A time capsule is aboard the lander — which includes a picture of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died aboard space shuttle Columbia in 2003 — as well as a lunar library containing 30 million pages on a disk from the US-based Arch Mission Foundation.

Ramon’s widow, Rona, was a big supporter of Beresheet; she died of cancer in December.

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