Crash landing survivor? NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/MIT Laser Retro-reflector Array (LRA) for Lunar Landers.
Credit: SpaceIL/Courtesy Xiaoli Sun/GSFC

A NASA piggyback experiment may have survived the April 11 crash landing of Israel’s Moon lander, Beresheet. Overflight of the crash site by the U.S. space agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) should provide imagery of the impact area.

Additionally, an LRO-carried Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) will attempt to detect a NASA-provided laser retro-reflector array in the Beresheet wreckage zone. Called the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/MIT Laser Retro-reflector Array (LRA) for Lunar Landers, the ball-shaped device was located on the top side of the Israeli lander.

NASA experiment after installation (the array is mounted on the top of the spacecraft, lower left, at about 7 o’clock position).
Credit: SpaceIL/Courtesy Xiaoli Sun/GSFC

Smaller than a computer mouse, LRA is composed of eight mirrors made of quartz cube corners that are set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame. That array is lightweight, radiation-hardened and long-lived.

From the high-flying LRO, laser beams generated by LOLA would strike the device and then are backscattered from the lunar surface. For each laser beam, LOLA measures its time of flight, or range.

Detection attempts

“Yes, we believe the laser reflector array would have survived the crash although it may have separated from the main spacecraft body,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s David Smith, the principal investigator for LOLA and an emeritus researcher at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland. LOLA will begin planning observations early next week, he said.

“Of course we do not know the orientation of the array, it could be upside down, but it has a 120 degree angle of reception and we only need 1 of the 1/2″ cubes for detection, but it has certainly not made it any easier,” he told Inside Outer Space.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
Credit: NASA/Goddard Science Visualization Studio (SVS)

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project is proceeding with attempting to image the crash site with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera system, LROC for short, Smith said. Also, the LRO-carried laser altimeter will be making attempts to get a return from the array as originally planned, he said.

NASA is interested in dotting the Moon with many such retro-reflectors in the future. These would serve as permanent “fiducial markers” on the Moon, meaning future craft could use them as points of reference to make precision landings.

The Israeli lunar spacecraft weighed only 1,322 pounds, or 600 kilograms.
Credit: Eliran Avital

Chain of events

Preliminary data supplied by the engineering teams of SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) suggests a technical glitch in one of Beresheet’s components triggered the chain of events on April 11 that caused the main engine of the spacecraft to malfunction.

Without the main engine working properly, it was impossible to stop Beresheet’s velocity. The Moon lander overcame the issue by restarting the engine. However, by that time, its velocity was too high to slow down and the landing could not be completed as planned.

Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander imagery taken before crash landing on April 11.
Credit: SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)

According to SpaceIL and IAI, preliminary technical information collected shows that the first technical issue occurred at 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) above the moon. At 492 feet (150 meters) from the lunar terrain, connection with the spacecraft was lost completely. At that time, Beresheet was moving vertically at 310 miles per hour (500 kilometers per hour), headed for an inevitable collision with the lunar surface.

The Beresheet spacecraft, whose name means “genesis” or “in the beginning” in Hebrew, was launched on February 21.

Meanwhile, the dream goes on! Morris Kahn, SpaceIL Chairman, the non-profit company that built Beresheet, announced today the launching of a follow-on lunar lander: Beresheet 2.0.

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