Receive the Mach newsletter.
By Corey S. Powell
Beresheet is the first word of the Hebrew Bible, which means "early". It is also the proper name of the robotic robot that a young Israeli company plans to launch on the Moon on February 21st.
If the mission succeeds, Beresheet will be the first Israeli spacecraft to travel beyond the Earth's orbit and the first private lander on the moon. The mission could also mark the beginning of a new era of spaceflight – a period in which companies go where previously only countries had left.
John Horack, an aerospace engineer at Ohio State University and expert in spaceflight, is stunned by the possibilities. "Nothing like it has been tried before," he says. "We are studying a whole new model of space exploration beyond the Earth's orbit."
From small-scale financing to engineering (Beresheet is about the size of a commercial refrigerator), almost everything about the Israeli investigation goes against tradition. His inspiration does not come from a government program, but from the Google Lunar XPrize, an "American Idol" contest promising $ 30 million to any private team able to place a lander on the moon and do it go 500 meters. and send back photos and a video documenting his career.
In 2009, the XPrize captivated the imagination of Yonatan Winetraub, a 22-year-old Israeli aerospace engineer who spent a year at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He wondered: why not try himself for the price of the moonshot? "Unfortunately, I did not find people crazy enough to follow my idea," he says.
Upon his return to Israel, Winetraub meets two related minds, computer engineer Yariv Bash and contractor Kfir Damari. "We all sat in a bar in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. As alcohol levels increased, we were more and more determined to do so, "he recalls. It was at this time that the trio founded SpaceIL, the nonprofit organization that created Beresheet.
It's since then a big drama. SpaceIL submitted its proposal to the XPrize committee just 45 minutes before the December 31, 2010 deadline. The first three Beresheet concepts failed in their technical evaluations, teaching SpaceIL painful lessons to get the most out of every drop. fuel. And when the XPrize contest ended last year without a winner, SpaceIL had to scramble for funds to complete its lander.
Today, Beresheet is in Cape Canaveral Florida, within two weeks of its planned takeoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Like an Uber in orbit
Since the beginning, SpaceIL and its partner, Israel Aerospace Industries, have fought a major handicap: they had never worked in a lunar mission before. Each component of the LG was a new challenge, especially as engineers struggled to keep the vehicle light and within budget.
In its final form, Beresheet weighs 350 pounds, not to mention a half-ton of on-board propellant. The mission costs a total of $ 95 million, much of which is subscribed by Morris Kahn, billionaire telecommunications and philanthropist Israel.
In comparison, NASA's last robotic lander was Surveyor 7 since 1968. It weighed twice as much as Beresheet, and the Surveyor program cost $ 3.5 billion in current dollars (though it covered seven separate missions).
Beresheet is a secondary payload on its SpaceX rocket, which means it launches into a launch for another SpaceX client. Winetraub compares this arrangement to a Uber carpool: The other customer occupies almost all the available space on the rocket and pays for most of the launch.
This route will take Beresheet only until the Earth's orbit. From there, he will have to shoot his own small rockets and travel three loops around the Earth and two around the Moon before landing on Mare Serenitatis, a volcanic plain located at the north-central of the lunar face.
"At the time of Apollo, they arrived on the moon in two days, but it will take us about a month and a half," says Winetraub. "It's like that if you do not want to pay the full price."
Mapping the moon with magnets and lasers
Once Beresheet reaches the moon in April, its embedded magnetometer will measure the subtle magnetic field embedded in the lunar surface. According to Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the main scientist of the experiment, the model of magnetism observed should reveal the conditions that prevailed more than 4 billion years ago, when the molten rock cooled and solidified to form the outer layers of the Moon.
"Our ultimate goal is to create a profile of the moon's magnetic field and understand its origin," Aharonson said in a statement.
Beresheet is also equipped with a device that reflects light exactly the same way it arrived, regardless of its angle. NASA already has many of these retroreflectors on the lunar surface; Scientists are reflecting laser beams to measure the exact orbit of the moon.
But the SpaceIL team has something more adventurous in mind.
Future spacecraft approaching the moon could use retroreflectors as a lunar GPS, says Winetraub, sending them a laser signal to establish reference positions. Beresheet will add to this nascent navigation network. "If you go to the moon and want to know where you are, you will not need to rely on a land station on Earth," says Winetraub. "You can just shoot down lasers."
After landing, Beresheet can also make a small jump using an onboard rocket. Such a movement would catch more magnetic readings but could cause the undercarriage to tip over or explode. The SpaceIL team is in stalemate on the opportunity to take the bet.
The wave of private space
Although it has not yet left the launch pad, Beresheet is already sending shockwaves into the world of space exploration. The Indian space agency is preparing its own lunar lander, Chandrayaan-2, sparking a host of announcements on which nation's flag will grace the first non-superpower mission to make a lunar landing.
Chandrayaan-2 is expected to be launched in April, several weeks after Beresheet, but it will follow a shorter and more direct trajectory. According to Winetraub, the two spacecraft could be in simultaneous transit to the Moon, and it is difficult to know which one would land first.
"I think it will be very exciting," says Winetraub. For the SpaceIL team and other advocates of private spaceflight, promoting a startup culture in space exploration boosts national pride and the right to brag about.
"Even if he does not succeed, Beresheet could have a noticeable impact," says Horack. "This will help future entrepreneurs to adopt what works, avoid what was not working and better understand how they could operate a business involving a trip to the moon."
Winetraub agrees and said: "We are only a small part of this huge wave of privatizations." NASA's director, Jim Bridenstine, recently promised a commercial landing supported by NASA "by the end of 2020", probably in partnership with another former competitor of XPrize. And OHB, an aerospace company based in Bremen, Germany, is partnering with SpaceIL to launch a similar project at the European Space Agency.
Winetraub also dreams of bigger companies, such as a private mission in Oumuamua, the mysterious interstellar object that went through the solar system in 2017. "I want people to say," Let's see if this has anything to do with extraterrestrials. Let's see what it is. I think people will be encouraged to do these things now that they know that private space missions are possible. "
Want more stories about spaceflight?
FOLLOW NBC NEWS MACH ON TWITTER, FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM.