First private spacecraft to attempt Moon landing crashes
Israeli Beresheet mission would have been first non-state spacecraft to make lunar landing
The first privately funded mission to the Moon has crashed on the lunar surface, in a blow to what had been hoped would have been a landmark moment for space exploration.
The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet, named after the Hebrew for “in the beginning”, was a joint project between SpaceIL, a privately funded Israeli non-profit organisation, and Israel Aerospace Industries.
It set off for the moon in late February but crashed on the lunar surface after the apparent failure of its main engine.
“We didn't make it, but we definitely tried,” said project originator and major backer Morris Kahn.
“I think that the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous, I think we can be proud,” he said.
Newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, watching from the control room near Tel Aviv, said: “If at first you don't succeed, you try again”.
Israel had hoped to become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the Moon. So far, only government space agencies from the former Soviet Union, the US and China have achieved this.
“Historically, space exploration, especially orbital launches which involve the spacecraft going high enough to complete an orbit of the Earth, has been so expensive and offered such uncertain returns on investment that it could only be funded by states,” says Sky News.
In a sign of just how costly space exploration has been in the past, during the height of the space race, Nasa’s budget stretched to more than 4.4% of the entire US federal government budget - compared to less than 0.5% in 2017.
By contrast, the Beresheet mission cost about $100m, “paving the way for future low-cost lunar exploration” says the BBC.
Its origins lie in the 2007 Google Lunar XPrize, an international challenge offering $20m for the first privately developed spacecraft to land on the Moon. Despite falling at the final hurdle, Haaretz says the success of Beresheet is nevertheless still “important in demonstrating the economic potential of space exploration, much of which is expected to be carried out in the coming years for commercial purposes by the private sector”.
Data analysis by Sky News shows that, since the 1990s, the private sector has driven investment in space exploration while states decreased the number of launches they were undertaking.
One country to have bucked this trend is China, which over the last ten years has been the only state agency to significantly increase its number of orbital launches.
Space says China’s National Space Administration kicked off “another installment of an international rush to the Moon this year” by landing its Chang'e 4 lander and rover on the far side, “a feat no country had accomplished before”.
India hopes to touch down on the moon's surface this year for the first time with its Chandrayaan-2 mission, and Nasa has said it is hoping to begin an ambitious programme of returning humans to the Moon by 2024 by sending small commercial landers carrying science instruments to the moon before the end of this year.