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

Next week, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will attempt to look for the crash site of Israel’s Beresheet Moon lander.

The spacecraft careened into the lunar surface on April 11, a crash landing apparently due to a “manual command” that was entered into the spacecraft’s computer.

“This led to a chain reaction in the spacecraft, during which the main engine switched off, which prevented it from activating further,” according to a SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) statement.

Last image from failed Beresheet lunar lander, at a distance of 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the surface of the Moon.
Credit: SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)

Finding the crash site

“The first opportunity to try to image or range to the Beresheet site is April 22 when the orbit of LRO is over the likely crash site. Attempts are expected to be made on a few orbits at that time at varying off-nadir angles,” said MIT’s David Smith, the principal investigator for the LRO-carried Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) He is also emeritus researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

LRO is only over the landing site twice each month and only one of those is in sunlight. That’s when the orbiter can use its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) – a system of three cameras mounted on the LRO that captures high resolution photos of the lunar surface.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

Lunar surface search

“We think it unlikely LROC will be able to see actual debris on the surface, just a scarring of the surface,” Smith told Inside Outer Space. “We understand that it is likely that the actual impact site could be a kilometer or more away from the best estimate of the impact site today, so it may take some searching, even for the camera. Our best hope is that LROC can see a fresh mark on the lunar surface to help pin down the precise location,” he said.

Integrated on Israeli lunar lander, a NASA scientific payload consisting of a small Lunar Retroreflector Array (LRA).
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center


Along with high-power camera sweeps, LRO will be using the onboard LOLA, trying to detect a NASA-provided laser retro-reflector array in the Beresheet wreckage zone.

Retro-reflector array

The size of a computer mouse, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/MIT Laser Retro-reflector Array (LRA) for Lunar Landers is comprised 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 orbiter, 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.

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

LOLA would operate when LROC looks for the crash site since they are co-boresighted, Smith said, but also when the site is in darkness.

“Our chances of a return from LOLA will be improved when LROC identifies the site, but our chances may never be great, but we will try for several weeks, maybe months,” Smith said.

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

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