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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