The Beresheet spacecraft successfully completed its second-to-last maneuver on Tuesday morning before the moon landing scheduled for Thursday, motoring into a tight orbit around the moon at a height of 200 kilometers (120 miles) above the lunar surface.
Engineers operated the engines for 78 seconds, burning almost 12 kilograms (24 pounds) of fuel starting at 8:34 a.m. on Tuesday morning,
The spacecraft will now orbit the moon once every two hours. Engineers expect to make one more maneuver on Wednesday bringing the spacecraft even closer to the orb before its historic landing bid.
On Thursday evening, they hope to gently bring the spacecraft to land on the moon’s surface, currently planned between 10 and 11 p.m. Israel time.
Viewers will be able to watch the moon landing live on Beresheet’s English Facebook page.
Last week, 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 — making Israel the seventh country in the world to achieve the feat.
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 crashed-landed on 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.
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.
By utilizing the gravitational pull of the earth and the moon and only activating the engines at the nearest and farthest points on the ellipses, engineers were able to drastically reduce the amount of fuel needed on the spacecraft. Fuel still accounts for the majority of Beresheet’s weight. At launch, the spacecraft weighed a total of 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds), of which about 440 kilograms (970 pounds) were fuel.
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 until the death of the solar system, 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.