SpaceIL back on course for the moon after computer glitch

by

ORLANDO — A privately-funded Israeli lunar lander performed a maneuver Feb. 28 to raise its orbit after a computer problem postponed an earlier maneuver.

The Beresheet lander fired its main thruster for about four minutes at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. The maneuver raised the apogee of the spacecraft’s orbit around the Earth from 69,400 to 131,000 kilometers.

“The maneuver was conducted as expected. All the systems of the spacecraft worked properly,” Ido Anteby, chief executive of SpaceIL, said after the maneuver in an audio statement provided by SpaceIL.

Beresheet was placed into its initial supersynchronous transfer orbit Feb. 21, launching as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Florida. The spacecraft performed its first post-launch maneuver Feb. 24 to raise the perigee of its orbit to 600 kilometers.

The spacecraft was originally scheduled to perform the maneuver to raise its apogee Feb. 25, but SpaceIL said that the onboard computers on Beresheet suffered an unexpected reset, cancelling the maneuver.

“We’ve managed to find our way around several problems that we had over these last few days,” said Opher Doron, general manager of the space division at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), who built the lander. “It’s quite normal for a new spacecraft to have some teething problems in its first days, and we’ve overcome them all.”

Doron described the computer issue as “small glitches that were solved by commands in the software” rather than a hardware issue. “It’s nothing that’s very serious. It just takes time to iron them out.”

Additional maneuvers are planned in the coming weeks to further raise the spacecraft’s orbit until it arrives at the vicinity of the moon in early April. Beresheet will then go into orbit around the moon ahead of a landing attempt April 11. Anteby said the next maneuver will be in about a week.

SpaceIL originally developed the lander to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize, which for a decade offered a $20 million first prize to the first privately-funded team to land a spacecraft on the moon, travel at least 500 meters across its surface and return video and other data. Google ended its sponsorship of the prize in early 2018 without a winner.

SpaceIL decided to continue development of its lander, funded largely through philanthropy, to continue its mission to encourage Israeli children to pursue careers in science and engineers. IAI, meanwhile, is planning to offer the lander for other customers, and announced in January an agreement with German company OHB to pursue opportunities with the European Space Agency.

Doron said that while Beresheet is performing well, he would not be surprised if there are other technical problems in the weeks ahead. “There are many things that cannot be tested on Earth,” he said. “There will probably be some more surprises along the way, and hopefully manage to deal with them as well.”

“We are quite happy” with the spacecraft in general, he noted. “The moon seems to be getting within reach.”