SpaceX shoots for the moon

SpaceX DragonPrivate aerospace company SpaceX announces that a crew of two – not publicly identified by the company – have booked a private circumlunar flight scheduled to take place in 2018 aboard a SpaceX Dragon v2 capsule. The flight will utilize a free-return trajectory to the moon, around its dark side, and back to Earth, without orbiting or landing. At the time of the announcement, Dragon v2 has yet to fly into space, either with or without a crew, and the booster that would be required for this flight, the Falcon Heavy, has yet to be test-flown, either with or without a crew.

Beresheet launched

BeresheetThe Israeli-built Beresheet uncrewed experimental lunar lander is launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Originally intended as an entrant for the Google Lunar X Prize, Beresheet (and all the other hopefuls) missed the March 31, 2018 deadline, leaving the $20,000,000 Lunar X Prize unclaimed. Unlike past lunar missions, Beresheet is launched into a high Earth orbit, whose apogee (maximum distance from Earth) will be increased over a period of nearly two months with multiple burns of the vehicle’s main engine until it coincides with the orbital distance of the moon, at which time the engine will be fired again to place it in a lunar orbit prior to landing. The lander contains digital copies of numerous documents from Earth, reflecting the builders’ Jewish heritage as well as extensive databases of knowledge from sources such as Wikipedia. As the lander itself has not been built with protective shielding of any kind, its operational lifetime is expected to last only around two days on the lunar surface. If the mission succeeds, Israel will be the fourth nation (after the United States, Soviet-era Russia, and China) to land a spacecraft on the moon.

Beresheet attempts to land on the moon

BeresheetThe Israeli-built Beresheet uncrewed experimental lunar lander, during its attempt to land on the moon, loses engine power during descent and plummets toward the lunar surface. Though the main engine is believed to have restarted during that descent, the vehicle is too low to make a survivable landing and crashes on the moon. The Google Lunar X Prize committee awards $1,000,000 to SpaceIL, the Israeli space exploration organization founded specifically to launch the Beresheet mission, and the mission’s backers vow to use the prize to build a second Beresheet lander to attempt to complete the original vehicle’s mission.

Chandrayaan-2 mission launched

Chandrayaan-2ISRO, India’s space agency, launches the Chandrayaan-2 mission to Earth’s moon, consisting of an orbiter and the Vikram/Prgyan lander/rover combination. The robotic vehicles are intended to conduct measurements, both from orbit and on the surface, of possible water ice deposits believed to exist at the lunar south pole. Much like the Beresheet mission launched by Israel earlier in the year, Chandrayaan-2 will employ a series of orbit-raising maneuvers until its apogee is high enough to propel it into lunar orbit with minimum reliance on burning fuel. The landing is expected to take place in September 2019.

India’s Vikram lunar lander falls silent

Chandrayaan-2 and VikramIndia’s mission to safely put a lander and an autonomous rover on the surface of the moon ends with a sudden loss of data. Deployed by the successful Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, the Vikram lander (carrying the Pragyan rover) begins a powered descent to the lunar surface, only to cease communicating with ground controllers in India at an altitude of 2.1 kilometers. With the speed of Vikram’s descent at the time of data loss measured at 60 meters per second via telemetry, ground controllers declare it likely that Vikram crashed into the moon, resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload, a fate somewhat similar to that of the Israel-launched Beresheet lander earlier in the year. The orbiter continues to function, and will search for signs of water ice at the south pole of the moon.