The Beresheet spacecraft performed a perfectly choreographed space jump Thursday night to allow the car-sized spacecraft to jump from an orbit around the Earth to one around the moon.
If the maneuver is confirmed as successful, Israel will become the seventh country in the world to bring a spacecraft to lunar orbit. Confirmation is expected within the next few hours.
The spacecraft wants Israel to become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon on 11 April.
The NIS 370 million ($ 100 million) spacecraft is a joint venture between Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from known Jewish philanthropists.
So far engineers have on several occasions activated the engines in short bursts of about a minute or two in order to push the spacecraft into ever-larger elliptical orbits of Earth.
For the spacecraft to orbit the moon, Beresheet needed to slow down from 8,500 kilometers per second to 7,500 kilometers per second. While this still seems fast to humans, according to engineers, it's the orbital equivalent of hitting the brakes. The engineers did this by turning the spacecraft so that its engines propelled it in the opposite direction, slowing down.
It took about nine minutes for eight different engines to slowly maneuver the spacecraft in the right direction, and just under six minutes for the engines to slow the spacecraft at the correct speed.
On Thursday, engineers said they believed the moon's gravity had successfully captured the spacecraft, even though it took them a few hours to make sure the spacecraft was headed in the right direction. About 25 engineers from the control room in Yehud, a suburb of Tel Aviv, where Israel Aerospace Industries is installed, exploded to applause at the end of the planned maneuver.
"After six weeks in space, we were able to overcome another critical phase as we entered the Moon's gravity," said Spaceil CEO Ido Antebby. "This is another significant achievement that our engineering team has won, demonstrating determination and creativity in finding solutions to unexpected challenges. We still have a long way to go before the lunar landing, but I am convinced that our team will complete the mission of landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon, making us all proud. "
Curiously, while the engineers successfully ran the spacecraft maneuver, the press crew had difficulty running the powerpoint presentation explaining the lunar landing next week to journalists, and they were forced to abandon the effort midway, shutting down the presentation.
Thursday was the longest period that engineers had activated the engines since the launch of the spacecraft on February 22.
So far, the engines have been fired seven times to expand the elliptical orbits. Beresheet has made 12.5 trips around the Earth since its launch on February 22. The lunar orbits are much smaller, and some take no more than 14 hours. Next week, the spacecraft will make smaller and smaller circles around the Moon until it reaches an altitude of about 15 kilometers above the surface. The landing gear will then engage to bring the spacecraft to rest in the Sea of Serenity.
In total, the spacecraft has traveled about 5.5 million kilometers and still has about a million to go. This is the slowest and longest journey a spacecraft made to the moon. The distance from Earth to Moon is an average of about 385,000 kilometers (239,000 miles).
By using the Earth's and Moon's gravitational pull and only activating the engines at points nearer and farther from the ellipses, the engineers were able to drastically reduce the amount of fuel needed in the spacecraft. Fuel is still responsible for most of the weight of the Beresheet. At launch, the spacecraft weighed a total of 600 kg, of which about 440 kg were fuel.
Beresheet, which means "Genesis" in Hebrew, took off on Feb. 22 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., On top of a Falcon 9 rocket from the privately owned SpaceX company based in the US by businessman Elon Musk.
Last month, Beresheet sent back a photo taken with its "selfie camera," in which the flag of Israel can be seen 37,600 kilometers (23,000 miles) above Earth.
The project was launched as Israel's entry into Google's LunarX challenge for non-governmental groups to land a spacecraft on the moon. Google closed the competition in 2018 without winners, but the Israeli team decided to continue their efforts in particular.
With Beresheet, Israel hopes to become the fourth country in the world to land a spacecraft on the Moon, following the US, Russia and China.
If successful, Beresheet will make history twice: as the first landing of the private sector on the Moon, and Israel's first ship to reach the orb.
If the Beresheet lands successfully on April 11, the spacecraft should conduct two or three days of experiments collecting data on the magnetic fields of the moon before switching off. There, it will remain, possibly for all eternity, on the surface of the Moon, joining about 181,000 kg (400,000 pounds to Earth's weight) of synthetic debris scattered across the surface of the moon.