Engineers confirmed early Friday morning that the Beresheet spacecraft was successfully captured by lunar gravity during a tricky maneuver the night before, making Israel the seventh country in the world to successfully send objects into orbit around the moon.
The United States, Russia (as the USSR), Japan, China, the European Space Agency and India have all made visits to the moon via probes, though only the US, Russia and China have successfully landed on the moon; other probes lost control and crashed into the surface.
If Israel successfully lands as planned on April 11, it will also be the first time that a privately financed venture has landed there.
Early on Friday morning, Beresheet sent back photos, one taken at a distance of just 470 kilometers (290 miles) above the moon’s surface.
The NIS 370-million ($100-million) spacecraft is a joint venture between the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists.
On Thursday, Beresheet’s engineers executed the most complicated maneuver yet, a perfectly choreographed space hop allowing the car-sized spacecraft to jump from an orbit around Earth to one around the moon.
In order for the spacecraft to successfully enter into an orbit around the moon, Beresheet needed to slow down from 8,500 kilometers per hour (5,280 miles per hour) to 7,500 kilometers per hour (4,660 miles per hour). Although that still seems fast to mere humans, according to engineers, it is the orbital equivalent of slamming on the brakes. The engineers accomplished this by turning the spacecraft so that its engines thrust it in the opposite direction, slowing down the speed.
It took about nine minutes for eight different engines to slowly maneuver the spacecraft in the right direction, and a little less than six minutes for the engines to slow the spacecraft down to the correct speed.
Thursday was the longest period that engineers have activated the engines since the spacecraft’s launch on February 22.
Now drawn into lunar orbit, Beresheet will trace smaller and smaller loops around the moon before attempting to land on April 11 in the Sea of Serenity.
“There is a significant chance we have a crash landing,” said Opher Doron, the space division general manager at Israel Aerospace Industries. “It’s very dangerous, and it’s difficult to predict if we’ll succeed.”
In total, the spacecraft has traveled around 5.5 million kilometers and still has about a million left to go. This is the slowest and longest trip a spacecraft has made to the moon. The distance from the Earth to the moon is an average about 385,000 kilometers (239,000 miles).
Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, lifted off on February 22 from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the private US-based SpaceX company of entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The project launched as Israel’s entry into the Google LunarX challenge for nongovernmental groups to land a spacecraft on the moon. Google ended the contest in 2018 with no winners, but the Israeli team decided to continue its efforts privately.
If Beresheet successfully lands on April 11, the spacecraft is expected to carry out two or three days of experiments collecting data about the moon’s magnetic fields before shutting down. There it will stay, possibly for eternity, on the moon’s surface, joining approximately 181,000 kilograms (400,000 pounds at Earth weight) of human-made debris strewn across the moon’s surface.