Israel's Lunar Spacecraft Successfully Completes First Maneuver Orbiting Moon

In first of five planned maneuvers, Beresheet approaches the moon's surface ahead of Thursday's expected landing

The far side of the moon is seen from Israeli spacecraft Beresheet, April 5, 2019.
Beresheet, courtesy of SpaceIL and IAI

Israel's first lunar spacecraft completed its first successful maneuver around the moon on Sunday ahead of its planned landing on Thursday.

Completed at 4:36 A.M. Israel time, this is the first of five maneuvers Beresheet, Hebrew for Genesis, is expected to perform over the upcoming days as it approaches the moon and prepares to enter a landing path at a height of 15 kilometers above its surface.

According to SpaceIL and the Israeli Aerospace Industries, Beresheet's engine operated for 271 seconds and burned 55 kilograms of fuel, reducing its farthest point from the moon, or apolune, from 10,400 to 750 kilometers.

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On Thursday, Beresheet succeeded in one of its biggest challenges en route to the moon: A maneuver allowing it to be captured by lunar gravity. The maneuver required Beresheet to slow down from a velocity of 8,500 kilometers per hour to 7,500.

Over the weekend, it snapped two of its first pictures of the far side of the moon. One of Beresheet's peripheral cameras took the picture from a distance of about 470 kilometers from the face of the moon. The largest craters in the pictures are over 4.5 billion years old; the smaller ones are younger. From one of the photos, the Earth is only visible as a bright orb in the distance.

The spacecraft is planned to land at sunrise, as daytime temperatures on the moon are very high. The spacecraft will then be able to function for 72 hours before it becomes too hot. Its operators have two potential landing sites, and experts hope the spacecraft’s special landing gear would permit it to survive the fall.

If it succeeds, Beresheet will make space history and become the first privately-built spacecraft to complete the challenging mission. The very low cost of the project, in comparison to other moon missions, at $100 million, is also an important milestone in the new era of human interplanetary travel, which could be expected to grow and commercialize as a result of this mission’s success.

Aside from the history and the entrepreneurial achievements, success in capturing the moon would also launch Genesis’ scientific missions: To decode the magnetic mysteries of moon rocks. The research aims to try and find out how they acquired this capability, as the moon itself doesn't have a magnetic field: whether it happened as a result of an internal process that happened at an earlier phase of the moon’s life or due to an external factor such as an asteroid landing.