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Beresheet bummer: Investigation of Israeli lunar lander’s crash points to human factor

Alan Boyle
Team SpaceIL says this was the last picture taken by the Beresheet lunar lander, at a distance of 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the lunar surface. (SpaceIL Photo)

A manually entered command apparently set off a chain reaction of events that led to last week’s crash of an Israeli-built lunar lander during its attempt to touch down on the moon, the mission’s managers said today.

Preliminary results of an investigation into the crash indicate that the manual command was entered into the spacecraft’s computer, which caused the main engine to switch off and stay off during the Beresheet lander’s descent.

The Jerusalem Post reported that problems started with a malfunction in an inertial measurement unit that kept track of the spacecraft’s orientation and motion.

“There was no incident like this since the mission began,” the Post quoted SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby as saying. “After it occurred, an activation command was sent to [the inertial measurement unit], causing a chain of events in which the main engine stopped and was unable to return to continuous operation.”

All attempts to restart the engine failed. That led to the failure of the nearly $100 million lunar mission, which took its name from the Hebrew words for “In the Beginning.”

The privately funded SpaceIL team and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries said that the investigation is continuing, and that final results will be released in the coming weeks.

“”I am proud of SpaceIL’s team of engineers for their wonderful work and dedication, and such cases are an integral part of such a complex and pioneering project,” Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, SpaceIL’s president and principal backer, said in a news release.” What is important now is to learn the best possible lessons from our mistakes and bravely continue forward. That’s the message we’d like to convey to the people in Israel and the entire Jewish world. This is the spirit of the Beresheet project.”

In the wake of last week’s crash, Kahn declared that he would back a follow-up mission called Beresheet 2.

“The mission we started, I hope we can complete,” Kahn said in a Hebrew-language video. “This is my goal. As for my message for all the youngsters — if it doesn’t work at first, you have to get up again and complete it. And this is what I’m doing.”

Even though the lander didn’t survive the crash, Inside Outside Space reported that a retroreflector provided by NASA might still be functional. The passive reflector, which is shaped like small mirror ball, is designed to reflect light sent out by the laser altimeter on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Signals bouncing back from the retroreflector could help NASA zero in on the crash site, and the device could continue to serve as a guidance marker for future lunar spacecraft even if it’s just sitting among the rest of Beresheet’s wreckage.

The wreckage also contains a miniaturized archive known as the Arch Lunar Library. The archive looks like a DVD and contains the equivalent of 30 million pages of documents and images, including the complete English-language version of Wikipedia, micro-etched onto 25 thin nickel discs.

“Based on the durability of the payload desk and estimated impact, we believe the Lunar Library to be intact. Now the hunt is on to find where exactly on the moon it landed,” the Arch Mission Foundation said in a statement. “The Arch Mission Foundation is putting together a team of experts — everyone from Stephen Wolfram to a world-class treasure hunter — to help locate the disc. This also means that Beresheet’s mission was a success in at least delivering the first commercial payload to the moon.”

The foundation laid out its plan to hunt for the disk in a white paper titled #FindTheLunarLibrary.

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