Some bittersweet news today as we get the word that the Israeli Beresheet spacecraft, unfortunately, crashed shortly before touchdown on the Moon. According to telemetry received from the spacecraft right up to the final moments, the main engine failed to start during a critical brake crash, which would have slowed the craft to the intended landing speed. Despite attempts to restart the engine before the impact with the surface, the craft hit the Moon too hard and is supposedly destroyed. It is likely that high resolution images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will eventually be able to give us a better idea of the craft's condition on the surface, but at this point the mission is now officially concluded.
It's easy to see this as a failure. Originally conceived as an entry into the Google Lunar X Prize, the intended goal for a $ 100 million mission was to become the first privately funded spacecraft to not only touch down on the Moon's surface, but navigate laterally through a series of powered "hops". Although the mission certainly fell short of those lofty goals, it is important to remember that Beresheet did land on the Moon.
It did not make the intended soft landing, a feat accomplished so far only by the United States, Russia, and China; but the fact of the matter is that a spacecraft from Israel now resting on the Moon's surface. Even though Beresheet did not survive the landing attempt, history must recognize Israel as the fourth country ever to place an object on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor.
It is also very likely that this will not be the last time Israel reaches for the Moon. During the live broadcast of the mission, after it was clear Beresheet was lost, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed his country would try again within the next two years. The lessons learned today will undoubtedly help to refine their next mission, and with no competition from other nations in the foreseeable future, there is still a great chance Israel will be able to secure their place in history as the fourth country to make a successful soft landing.
Of course you've got to get to the Moon before you can land on it, and in this regard, Beresheet was an unmitigated success. We have previously covered the complex maneuvers needed to put the craft into the lunar orbit after riding it as a secondary payload on the Falcon 9 rocket; a technique that we'll likely see more of thanks to NASA's recent commitment to return to the Moon. Even if Beresheet never attempted to land on the surface, the fact that it was able to enter a stable lunar orbit and deliver dramatic up-close images of the Moon's surface will be well deserved a pride for Israel.
If there's one thing to take away from the loss of Beresheet, it's that travel among the stars is exceptionally difficult. Today we are reminded that even the slightest miscalculation can quickly escalate into tragedy when we leave the relative safety of Earth's atmosphere. In an era when a mega-rocket launching a sport's car live YouTube seems oddly commonplace, it can be easy to forget that humanity's long path to space has as many heartbreaking wins as it triumphant successes.
This will not Being the last time, hundreds of millions of dollars of high-tech equipment will be lost while pushing the absolute edge of the envelope, and that's nothing to be upset. People have an insatiable need to see what's over the horizon and that means we have to take a certain amount of risk. The alternative is stagnation, and that will cost us much more than a few crashed probes.