Israeli Moon probe crashes at the last minute but SpaceX scores with Falcon Heavy launch

One step forward, one step back in space news


The first attempt by a private company to land a probe on the Moon's surface ended in failure on Thursday when the vehicle crashed minutes before it was supposed to land.

The Beresheet lander, run by Israeli firm SpaceIL, was due to touch down on the lunar regolith after months spent getting into position. The lander carried a magnetometer, a time capsule containing a complete copy of Wikipedia, the Torah, the declaration of Israeli independence and other historical documents.

Originally designed to win Google's Lunar XPrize, Beresheet was repurposed after it and every other entrant missed the completion deadline. But the team managed to pull together a total of $100m in funding to help make Israel the fourth nation to land a probe on our closest natural satellite.

All looked good at first. Beresheet was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket in February and, using carefully controlled burns, moved out to orbit the Moon. By Thursday morning, the probe was just 25 km. (16 miles) from the surface and the team rotated it to slow the spacecraft down and allow it to land.

Then, with just minutes to go, Beresheet's engine cut out unexpectedly and the team lost communications briefly. They were able to get the motor restarted but lost control and the lander is now presumed scattered over the northern part of the Mare Serenitatis.

"We didn't make it but we really tried," said billionaire co-sponsor of the probe Morris Kahn, who was at the launch. "The achievement has been tremendous and I think we can be proud."

The exact cause of the fault is still being analyzed but the team acknowledged before the flight that would be a close run thing. With such a tiny budget the design had little in the way of backup systems and – as the saying goes – space is hard.

"If at first you don't succeed, you try again," said newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also attended the launch.

Meanwhile, in Florida…

After the morning's disappointments, all eyes were on SpaceX in the afternoon as it attempted to make its first commercial orbital delivery using the Falcon Heavy rocket system.

The Heavy has flown before, in February 2018 when it flung Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster at Mars – a mission that failed to reach the Red Planet but made for some great footage. On Thursday it was carrying Arabsat-6A, a 6,000 kg. (13,228 lb.) monster of a communications satellite.

The satellite, designed to handle voice, TV and data traffic to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, was an important milestone for SpaceX, showing that the new large rocket can be commercially viable.

There are another four commercial launches for the Heavy already planned, including one for the US military and failure would cast a cloud over that. Even Musk seemed to be hedging his bets, saying the design was so new that the chance of failure was as high as 10 per cent.

Elon's Musketeers also wanted to recover all three rockets – something the first trip had failed at. The Heavy blasted off from Cape Canaveral at 1835 EDT (2235 GMT) without an issue and this time the SpaceX team nailed it, bringing the two side boosters in for a synchronized landing at the spaceport with the main booster landing on the autonomous barge "Of course I still love you," as the payload moved into orbit.

There will be Champagne corks popping in SpaceX offices tonight as the $500m the company has plowed into the rockets development paid off. The boosters will now be refurbished and reused for another mission. ®

Similar topics

Narrower topics


Other stories you might like

  • Whatever hit the Moon in March, it left this weird double crater
    NASA probe reveals strange hole created by suspected Chinese junk

    Pic When space junk crashed into the Moon earlier this year, it made not one but two craters on the lunar surface, judging from images revealed by NASA on Friday.

    Astronomers predicted a mysterious object would hit the Moon on March 4 after tracking the debris for months. The object was large, and believed to be a spent rocket booster from the Chinese National Space Administration's Long March 3C vehicle that launched the Chang'e 5-T1 spacecraft in 2014.

    The details are fuzzy. Space agencies tend to monitor junk closer to home, and don't really keep an eye on what might be littering other planetary objects. It was difficult to confirm the nature of the crash; experts reckoned it would probably leave behind a crater. Now, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has spied telltale signs of an impact at the surface. Pictures taken by the probe reveal an odd hole shaped like a peanut shell on the surface of the Moon, presumably caused by the Chinese junk.

    Continue reading
  • SpaceX: 5G expansion could kill US Starlink broadband
    It would be easier to take this complaint seriously if Elon wasn't so Elon

    If the proposed addition of the 12GHz spectrum to 5G goes forward, Starlink broadband terminals across America could be crippled, or so SpaceX has complained. 

    The Elon Musk biz made the claim [PDF] this week in a filing to the FCC, which is considering allowing Dish to operate a 5G service in the 12GHz band (12.2-12.7GHz). This frequency range is also used by Starlink and others to provide over-the-air satellite internet connectivity.

    SpaceX said its own in-house study, conducted in Las Vegas, showed "harmful interference from terrestrial mobile service to SpaceX's Starlink terminals … more than 77 percent of the time, resulting in full outages 74 percent of the time." It also claimed the interference will extend to a minimum of 13 miles from base stations. In other words, if Dish gets to use these frequencies in the US, it'll render nearby Starlink terminals useless through wireless interference, it was claimed.

    Continue reading
  • SpaceX and OneWeb bury the satellite constellation hatchet
    Will play nicely in Earth orbit

    A letter has been filed with America's communications watchdog confirming that SpaceX and OneWeb, which are building mega-constellations of broadband satellites, are content to play nicely.

    The letter sweeps all the unpleasantness between the two neatly under the rug "after extensive good-faith coordination discussions." Despite what could charitably be described as snarky remarks about each other to the FCC over the years, the duo have agreed that their first-generation broadband satellite services can, after all, co-exist.

    "Their respective second-round systems can also efficiently coexist with each other while protecting their respective first-round systems," the memo, dated June 13 and shared by Reuters' journo Joey Roulette today, reads.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022