The First Launch of a Commercial Lunar Lander

Marcus Cote Photo
A Falcon 9 lights up the sky above the Space Coast for the first time in 2019. Here’s a long exposure from 321 Boat Club in Melbourne, Florida. Credit: @marcuscotephoto

At 01:45 UTC on February the 22nd 2019 an already flown Falcon 9 was the first SpaceX rocket flown from the Cape in 2019. Launching from SLC-40 in Cape Canaveral, FL, the 70 metre high rocket flew three satellites into space. On board was an Indonesian communications satellite, a privately funded Israeli moon lander and an experimental space surveillance satellite for the US Air Force. The Falcon 9 first stage booster successfully landed back on Earth for a third time, landing on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”.

SpaceX launch
A shot of the Falcon 9 launching from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral with 3 satellites on board. Credit: SpaceX.

The Israeli moon lander is the first of its kind, attempting to be the first privately funded mission to the Moon. It was also the first to separate from the rocket at 33 minutes after liftoff. Within minutes of separation the spacecraft opened its four landing legs and radioed ground control with a status report. At 585 kg at launch it is not especially heavy for a spacecraft, and not the heaviest on board, but without fuel it would only be 150 kg. It is roughly 2m in diameter and 1.5 m tall with the landing legs extended. It is named Beresheet after the Hebrew title of the biblical book of Genesis. After several orbits of the Earth the spacecraft will begin to slowly raise its orbit with the on board thrusters. The process will take roughly 7 weeks to reach the Moon’s area of gravitational influence. At that point the spacecraft will perform manoeuvres to be captured into a lunar orbit, staying there for between two weeks and a month. When in the correct orbit, it will attempt a soft landing on the surface, aiming at the northern end of Mare Serenitatis. The landing zone is a circle of about 15 km.

SpaceIL co-founders Kfir Damari, Yonatan Winetraub and Yariv Bash insert a time capsule on the Beresheet spacecraft. Credit: SpaceIL
spacex launch
Great view of the 9 engined, 70m rocket launching from the Cape in late February. Credit: SpaceX

The aim of the Moon lander, beyond being the first commercial lander, is to measure the Moon’s local magnetic field to help understand how it formed in the early solar system. To do this it has an on board magnetometer, made by the Weizmann Institute of Science. It also has a laser retroreflector array payload provided by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. This is a device that will reflect a laser back the direction that it came from. The Apollo astronauts installed a similar device that is still used today to measure the distance the Moon is from Earth at any one time. You do need a very powerful laser to achieve this though. With minimal science instruments the spacecraft is not designed to last long on the surface. It has no thermal control so is expected to quickly overheat when functioning. It therefore has an expected life of just two days after landing on the surface. The craft also has a digital time capsule that contains over 30 million pages of data, including a full copy of the Bible, English-language Wikipedia, many children’s drawings, memories of a Holocaust survivor, Israel’s national anthem, the Israeli flag and a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

rocket landing
The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage lands on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You.” Credit: SpaceX

Made as a competitor for the Google Lunar X prize, Beresheet is made by SpaceIL. They are a non-profit, and have reportedly produced the mission for less than $100 million, which is extraordinarily cheap for this kind of mission. This is going to be the first private interplanetary mission that’s going to go to the moon,” said Yonatan Winetraub, a co-founder of SpaceIL, which had its origin in a brainstorming meeting in a Tel Aviv bar. “This is a big milestone. This is going to be the first time that it’s not going to be a superpower that’s going to go to the moon. This is a huge step for Israel.

“Until today, three superpowers have soft landed on the moon — the United States, the Soviet Union and recently, China,” . “And (we) thought it’s about time for a change. We want to get little Israel all the way to the moon. This is the purpose of SpaceIL.”


Winetraub, in a news conference
long exposure launch
Long exposure of the launch from across the water. Credit: SpaceX

The Indonesian Nusantara Satu communications satellite was by far the heaviest payload on board at 4,100 kg, deployed 44 minutes into flight. Formerly known as PSN-6, Nusantara Satu is a high throughput satellite that will provide voice and data communications as well as broadband internet throughout the Indonesian archipelago and South East Asia. Built by SSL for PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara, it was the first private telecommunications company in Indonesia. The cost of the project is estimated at $230 million. The mission uses solar electric ion thrusters to get to the correct orbit, but will employ conventional chemical thrusters to stay in that orbit. It is expected to last at least 15 years.

Nusantara Satu
The Nusantara Satu spacecraft, topped with the Beresheet lunar lander and the U.S. Air Force’s S5 space situational awareness satellite, is pictured before encapsulation inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing at Cape Canaveral. Credit: SSL

The other secondary payload on the Falcon 9 was an experimental Air Force satellite intended to test space situational awareness technologies. The flight was brokered by Spaceflight, a Seattle based company that finds rideshare launch services. The S5 satellite was made for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Although the mission has had very little information released about it there has been some. Blue Canyon Technologies announced in September 2017 that it won a contract from AFRL to build two small satellites to operate in GEO. One was identified as S5, a 60 kg satellite using a payload provided by Applied Defence Solutions. The illustrations released show an optics system attached to a satellite bus, and a solar array. “The objective of the S5 mission is to measure the feasibility and affordability of developing low cost constellations for routine and frequent updates to the GEO space catalog,” Blue Canyon Technologies said in its statement. The S5 satellite is attached to the Nusantara Satu satellite and will be until it reaches GEO, where it will separate, turn on, and start its mission. This is not dissimilar to Hispasat 30W-6 that also deployed a smallsat after launch last year.

blue canyon S5 smallsat
Blue Canyon Technologies announced in September 2017 it won an AFRL contract to provide the bus for an experimental smallsat called S5 for space surveillance applications. Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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The Items Apollo 11 Left behind on the Moon

Aldrin Looks Back at Tranquility Base
Buzz Aldrin Looks Back at Tranquility Base just after deploying the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP). Credit: NASA.

July 21st 1969. The time is 2:56 UTC, Neil Armstrong is taking the first steps on the moon, 20 minutes later Buzz Aldrin is following. The landing site looks clean apart from the big lander that is their lift home. By the end of the two hour EVA on the lunar surface the site would be walked over, science experiments laid out, and a pile of rubbish left in a pit. A view you don’t get to see in the images from Apollo 11, the astronauts left over 100 items on the lunar surface. Some commemorative, but mostly items they didn’t need for the return journey.

The plaque
The plaque attached to the lunar lander, with a message from all mankind, just in case some other being finds it. It commemorates the first steps on the Moon. Credit: NASA.

Famously landing in the sea of tranquillity, the Eagle lander has a number of official commemorative items attached to it. The main one is a plaque proclaiming “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Under the “we come in peace” is a golden replica of an olive branch. Nearby is a small aluminium capsule with a tiny Silicon disc inside. It contained on it messages from four US presidents, and seventy three other heads of state. It was sketched onto it in microscopic lettering, with the wording found here. There are also a few non official items taken there by the astronauts. An Apollo 1 patch in memory of Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White who died in January 1967 in a fire inside the first Apollo capsule. They also left behind two military medals that belonged to Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, both famous USSR cosmonauts. It showed the respect these men had for Soviet cosmonauts who had achieved so many firsts, and went through the same trials and tests they did.

The Apollo 1 patch
The patch for the famous Apollo 1 where Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White tragically died in a fire. The patch was left on the Moon. Credit: NASA

On top of this they left the science experiments that they had used, such as the passive seismic experiment. The experiment that used meteorite impacts on the surface to map the inside structure of the Moon. They also placed a master reflector so that scientists could measure the distance from Earth precisely. This retroreflector still works, and if you have access to a powerful enough laser you can measure it yourself. They also had to pick up lots of moon rocks and moon dust as part of the science mission. They used sample scoops, scales and even a small hammer. There are also many specific tools that were needed, but were discarded before the return journey.

Map of Tranquillity base
Map of Tranquillity base including the Toss Zone where all the rubbish was discarded. Credit: NASA

Overall they left roughly 106 random bits if rubbish at the launch site. Including lots of tools like the hammers, chisel and brushes needed for sampling; astronaut EVA gear such as the over boots and and life support systems; and actual rubbish like the empty food bags, some armrests they wanted to dispose of; a TV camera; insulation blanket; pins and plastic covers for items like the flag (and the flag itself) plus the urine, defecation and sickness bags, although there is no word on whether they were used. They threw all the items into an area behind the lander known as the “Toss Zone”, basically just a rubbish pit.

Buzz with science
Buzz carrying science experiments to the required place slightly away from tranquility base. Credit: NASA

The astronauts left a surprisingly large amount of stuff on the Moon, but it does make sense, as they needed that weight to be replaced with the 300 kg of Moon rocks that they wanted to bring back, so they just left it all there. There is a full list of the items on this webpage, and its worth a look. Archived by the Lunar Legacy Project, they count it as over 106 items. Depending on how you count it, there can be over 116 items left by the Apollo Astronauts.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.