Israel’s Moon Lander Crashed, and That’s OK

Some bittersweet news today as we get word that Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft unfortunately crashed shortly before touchdown on the Moon. According to telemetry received from the spacecraft right up until the final moments, the main engine failed to start during a critical braking burn which would have slowed the craft to the intended landing velocity. Despite attempts to restart the engine before impact with the surface, the craft hit the Moon too hard and is presumably destroyed. It’s likely that high resolution images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will eventually be able to give us a better idea of the craft’s condition on the surface, but at this point the mission is now officially concluded.

The Beresheet Lander

It’s easy to see this as a failure. Originally conceived as an entry into the Google Lunar X Prize, the intended goal for the $100 million mission was to become the first privately funded spacecraft to not only touch down on the lunar surface, but navigate laterally through a series of powered “hops”. While the mission certainly fell short of those lofty goals, it’s important to remember that Beresheet did land on the Moon.

It didn’t make the intended soft landing, a feat accomplished thus far only by the United States, Russia, and China; but the fact of the matter is that a spacecraft from Israel is now resting on the lunar surface. Even though Beresheet didn’t survive the attempt, history must recognize Israel as the fourth country to put a lander on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor.

It’s also very likely this won’t be the last time Israel reaches for the Moon. During the live broadcast of the mission, after it was clear Beresheet had been lost, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed his country would try again within the next two years. The lessons learned today will undoubtedly help refine their next mission, and with no competition from other nations in the foreseeable future, there’s still an excellent chance Israel will be able to secure their place in history as the fourth country to make a successful soft landing.

Beresheet’s view during descent

Of course you’ve got to get to the Moon before you can land on it, and in this respect, Beresheet was an unmitigated success. We previously covered the complex maneuvers required to put the craft into lunar orbit after riding to space as a secondary payload on the Falcon 9 rocket; a technique which we’ll likely see more of thanks to the NASA’s recent commitment to return to the Moon. Even if Beresheet never attempted to land on the surface, the fact that it was able to enter into a stable lunar orbit and deliver dramatic up-close images of the Moon’s surface will be a well deserved point of pride for Israel.

If there’s one thing to take away from the loss of Beresheet, it’s that travel among the stars is exceptionally difficult. Today we’re reminded that even the slightest miscalculation can quickly escalate into tragedy when we leave the relative safety of Earth’s atmosphere. In an era when a mega-rocket launching a sport’s car live on YouTube seems oddly common place, it can be easy to forget that humanity’s long path to space featured as many heartbreaking defeats as it does triumphant successes.

This won’t be the last time that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment will be lost while pushing the absolute edge of the envelope, and that’s nothing to be upset over. Humans have an insatiable need to see what’s over the horizon and that means we must take on a certain level of risk. The alternative is stagnation, and in the long run that will cost us a lot more than a few crashed probes.

[Caleb Kraft] Brings us the Moon, on a Budget

As you might expect from one of our most illustrious alumni, [Caleb Kraft] is a rather creative fellow. Over the years he’s created some absolutely phenomenal projects using CNC routers, 3D printers, laser cutters, and all the other cool toys the modern hacker has access to. But for his latest project, a celebration of the full Moon, he challenged himself to go low-tech. The Moon is something that anyone on Earth can look up and enjoy, so it seemed only fitting that this project should be as accessible to others as possible.

[Caleb] started this project by looking for high-resolution images of the Moon, which was easy enough. He was even able to find sign shops that were more than happy to print a giant version for him. Unfortunately, the prices he was quoted were equally gargantuan. To really be something that anyone could do, this project needed to not only be easy, but as affordable as possible. But where do you get a giant picture of the Moon for cheap?

He eventually found a source for Moon shower curtains (we told you he was creative), which fit the bill perfectly. [Caleb] says they aren’t nearly as detailed as the original images he found, but unless you’ve got your face pressed up against it you’ll never notice anyway. To make the round frame, he used PEX tubing from the hardware store and simply stapled the curtain directly to the soft plastic. The hardest part of the whole project is arguably getting the curtain flat and taut on the PEX ring.

Technically you could stop now and have a pretty slick piece of art to hang on your wall, but [Caleb] took the idea a bit farther and put a strip of RGB LEDs along the inside of the ring. The shower curtain material does a decent enough job of diffusing the light of the LEDs to make it look pretty good, though there’s certainly some room for improvement if you want to get a more even effect over the entire surface. While you’re at it, you might as well add in some additional electronics so the lighting matches the current phase of the real-life Moon.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to settle for a far more diminutive version of Luna and don’t mind using those highfalutin hacker tools that [Caleb] decided to avoid for the good of mankind, we’ve got a project you might be interested in.

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Extraterrestrial Excavation: Digging Holes on Other Worlds

We humans are good at a lot of things, but making holes in the ground has to be among our greatest achievements. We’ve gone from grubbing roots with a stick to feeding billions with immense plows pulled by powerful tractors, and from carving simple roads across the land to drilling tunnels under the English Channel. Everywhere we go, we move dirt and rock out of the way, remodeling the planet to suit our needs.

Other worlds are subject to our propensity for digging holes too, and in the 50-odd years that we’ve been visiting or sending robots as our proxies, we’ve made our marks on quite a few celestial bodies. So far, all our digging has been in the name of science, either to explore the physical and chemical properties of these far-flung worlds in situ, or to actually package up a little bit of the heavens for analysis back home. One day we’ll no doubt be digging for different reasons, but until then, here’s a look at the holes we’ve dug and how we dug them.

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Hitchhiking to the Moon for Fun and Profit

On February 22nd, a Falcon rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying the Indonesian communications satellite Nusantara Satu. While the satellite was the primary payload for the mission, as is common on the Falcon 9, the rocket had a couple of stowaways. These secondary payloads are generally experiments or spacecraft which are too small or light to warrant a rocket of their own such as CubeSats. But despite flying in the economy seats, one of the secondary payloads on this particular launch has a date with destiny: Israel’s Beresheet, the first privately-funded mission to attempt landing on the Moon.

But unlike the Apollo missions, which took only three days to reach our nearest celestial neighbor, Beresheet is taking a considerably more leisurely course. It will take over a month for the spacecraft to reach the Moon, and it will be a few weeks after that before it finally makes a powered descent towards the Sea of Serenity, not far from where Apollo 17 landed 47 years ago. That assumes everything goes perfectly; tack a few extra weeks onto that estimate if the vehicle runs into any hiccups on the way.

At first glance, this might seem odd. If the trip only took a few days with 1960’s technology, it seems a modern rocket like the Falcon 9 should be able to make better time. But in reality, the pace is dictated by budgetary constraints on both the vehicle itself and the booster that carried it into space. While one could argue that the orbital maneuvers involved in this “scenic route” towards the Moon are more complicated than the direct trajectory employed by the manned Apollo missions, it does hold promise for a whole new class of lunar spacecraft. If you’re not in any particular hurry, and you’re trying to save some cash, your Moon mission might be better off taking the long way around.

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Amateur Astronomers Spot Meteorite Impact During Lunar Eclipse

According to ancient astronaut theorists, the lunar eclipse this weekend had an unexpected visitor. Right around the time of totality, a meteoroid crashed into the moon, and it was visible from Earth.

Meteoroids crash into the Earth and Moon all the time, although this usually happens either over the ocean (70% of the Earth) where we can’t see it, on the far side of the moon (~50% of the Moon) where we can’t see it, or on the sunlit side of the Moon (another, different 50%), where we can’t see it. These meteoroids range from the size of a grain of sand to several meters across, but only the largest could ever be seen by the human eye. This weekend’s lunar eclipse, the Super Blood Wolf Moon was visible to a large portion of the population, and many, many cameras were trained on the Moon. Several telescopes livestreamed the entire eclipse, and multiple people caught a glimpse of a small flash of light, seeming to come from around Lagrange crater. Because this event was seen by multiple observers separated by thousands of miles, the only conclusion is that something hit the moon, and its impact event was recorded on video.

This is not the first time an impact event has been recorded on the moon. The Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS) running out of La Hita Observatory has regularly recorded impact events, including one that was comparable to an an explosion of 15 tons of TNT. These automated observatories aren’t running during a full moon, like during a lunar eclipse, because no camera would be able to pick up the flash of light. We were somewhat lucky last weekend’s impact happened during totality, and with dozens of cameras trained on the Moon.

Further investigation will be necessary to determine the size of the meteoroid and obtain pictures of its impact crater, but for a basis of comparison, the LCROSS mission plowed a Centaur upper stage (2.2 tons) into the lunar surface at 2.5 km/s. This should have resulted in a flash visible through binoculars, but it didn’t. The meteoroid that struck the moon last weekend would have been traveling faster (a minimum of about 12 km/s), but the best guess is that this rock might have been of suitable size to have fit in the back of a pickup truck, or thereabouts.

The Short and Tragic Story of Life on the Moon

The Moon is a desolate rock, completely incapable of harboring life as we know it. Despite being our closest celestial neighbor, conditions on the surface couldn’t be more different from the warm and wet world we call home. Variations in surface temperature are so extreme, from a blistering 106 C (223 F) during the lunar day to a frigid -183 C (-297 F) at night, that even robotic probes struggle to survive. The Moon’s atmosphere, if one is willing to call the wispy collection of oddball gasses including argon, helium, and neon at nearly negligible concentrations an atmosphere, does nothing to protect the lunar surface from being bombarded with cosmic radiation.

Von Kármán Crater

Yet for a brief time, very recently, life flourished on the Moon. Of course, it did have a little help. China’s Chang’e 4 lander, which made a historic touchdown in the Von Kármán crater on January 3rd, brought with it an experiment designed to test if plants could actually grow on the lunar surface. The device, known as the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME), contained air, soil, water, and a collection of seeds. When it received the appropriate signal, LME watered the seeds and carefully monitored their response. Not long after, Chinese media proudly announced that the cotton seeds within the LME had sprouted and were doing well.

Unfortunately, the success was exceptionally short-lived. Just a few days after announcing the success of the LME experiment, it was revealed that all the plants which sprouted had died. The timeline here is a bit hazy. It was not even immediately clear if the abrupt end of the LME experiment was intentional, or due to some hardware failure.

So what exactly do we know about Chang’e 4’s Lunar Micro Ecosystem, and the lifeforms it held? Why did the plants die? But perhaps most importantly, what does all this have to do with potential future human missions to that inhospitable rock floating just a few hundred thousand kilometers away from us?

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Hams see Dark Side Of The Moon Without Pink Floyd

Ham radio operators bouncing signals off the moon have become old hat. But a ham radio transmitter on the Chinese Longjiang-2 satellite is orbiting the moon and has sent back pictures of the Earth and the dark side of the moon. The transceiver’s main purpose is to allow hams to downlink telemetry and relay messages via lunar orbit.

While the photo was received by the Dwingeloo radio telescope, reports are that other hams also picked up the signal. The entire affair has drawn in hams around the world. Some of the communications use a modulation scheme devised by [Joe Taylor, K1JT] who also happens to be a recipient of a Nobel prize for his work with pulsars. The Dwingeloo telescope has several ham radio operators including [PA3FXB] and [PE1CHQ].

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