Setback for Israeli lunar lander as computer glitch prevents scheduled maneuver
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Setback for Israeli lunar lander as computer glitch prevents scheduled maneuver

Engineers examining data from Beresheet spacecraft to learn why it rebooted itself, causing automatic abort of trajectory adjustment needed to get to the moon

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)
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)

A hitch in computer systems Monday evening caused an Israeli lunar spacecraft to miss a scheduled adjustment in its trajectory en route to the moon, engineers reported on Tuesday.

The maneuver by the Beresheet craft was postponed after the space vehicle’s on-board computer executed an independent restart. As a result, the craft automatically canceled an engine burn scheduled to keep it on track for an April lunar landing.

“At the moment we are not very worried. Of course it isn’t nice, but we are still optimistic,” said SpaceIL CEO Dr. Ido Anteby.

Engineers on Tuesday were still examining the data to figure out what happened. Opher Doron, the general manager of the Space Division at Israel Aerospace Industries, said that the engineers had not encountered a similar problem during simulations.

The spacecraft is still set to land on the moon on April 11, as engineers built in a number of buffer days in case of delays, said Doron.

Beresheet is headed to the moon through a roundabout path that helps the tiny spacecraft, about the size of a car, save on fuel. The spacecraft will circle Earth six or seven times in a series of growing ellipses before jumping into the moon’s orbit on April 4.

The setback came a day after Beresheet successfully completed its first maneuver by firing its engine while tens of thousands of miles away from Earth. The first maneuver was at the furthest point in the first ellipse, nudging the spacecraft toward a second, larger ellipse.

The second maneuver, set for late Monday night, was scheduled to take place at the closest point to earth along the first ellipse, just 600 kilometers (370 miles) above the northern hemisphere.

Engineers are only in contact with the spacecraft for about half an hour every four hours, but Anteby said all the communication windows are working as expected. “We know we are going to lose communication, and then we’re just waiting and waiting and waiting for it to come back, and it doesn’t always come back at exactly the same moment you expect,” he said. “And then suddenly you get the communication back, and this time we saw that the maneuver wasn’t completed.”

Following the successful launch of Beresheet into space early Friday morning, the team in the control room began looking into a small problem with its star navigation system. The navigation system allows the spacecraft, which is spinning in space, to figure out its orientation. Understanding the orientation is crucial for a number of operations, including ensuring that the onboard engines that direct the spacecraft to the correct trajectory are activated in the right direction. Anteby said on Tuesday that engineers were checking to see if the involuntary reset was a side effect of the issues with the star navigation system.

A computer simulation shows the route that the Beresheet spacecraft will take the moon, with a series of larger ellipses around the Earth until it reaches an orbit around the moon. (courtesy SpaceIL)

Aviv Priel, an engineer who is part of the team that controls the spacecraft’s maneuvers, said the team had discussed whether to put off the planned maneuvers while trying to understand more about the star navigation issue.

Priel said the team believes glare from the sun on the the spacecraft’s sensors is making it more difficult than expected for the spacecraft to orient itself according to the position of the stars. However, he added that the issue only happens at certain angles, and the team thus far is able to manipulate the spacecraft to obtain a full reading.

“The thing with the star tracker is it brought a lot of uncertainties with the first maneuver,” said Priel, referring to the successful maneuver on Sunday. “At some points, we weren’t sure if we should put it off. But we overcame it, we implemented it, and it was beautiful to see. During the [first] maneuver we had online communication — not immediately, with about a two-second delay, but we saw it almost real time.

“It was very exciting to see the main engine turn on and the measurements and the star navigation system working,” he said. “It was exciting and breathtaking as well.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off with Israel’s Lunar Lander and an Indonesian communications satellite at space launch complex 40, February 21, 2019, in Cape Canaveral, Florida (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, lifted from Cape Canaveral atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the private US-based SpaceX company of entrepreneur Elon Musk.

If successful, Beresheet will make history twice: as the first private-sector landing on the Moon, and the first from Israel.

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