The Israeli Beresheet moon lander didn’t complete its mission, crashing into the moon instead of landing softly. That’s a setback for Israel’s space ambitions, but the mission might not be a complete loss. An experimental NASA payload from the Beresheet spacecraft might still be intact someplace on the lunar surface. Researchers plan to begin scouring the likely crash site for signs of the Lunar Retroreflector Array (LRA).
Beresheet was itself something of a technology demonstration mission. Aside from the cameras and sensors necessary for landing on the moon, the designers didn’t add any scientific equipment. However, the Israeli Weizmann Institute of Science added a magnetometer to the lander, and NASA supplied the LRA.
On April 11, Beresheet was on its way to a soft landing on the moon when the gyroscope failed. This kicked off a chain reaction that resulted in a main engine shutdown. Without the ability to slow its descent, the lander crashed into the surface, never to be heard from again. SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries have already announced the development of Beresheet-2, but the story of the first lander might not be over yet.
The LRA is a small dome-shaped assembly with eight quartz mirrors. The mirrors are intended to be reflectors that other spacecraft can use for orientation and high-precision landings. MIT’s David Smith is the principal investigator for NASA’s ‘Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft. Smith says the LRA more than likely survived the crash, but it might not be attached to the lander anymore.
The LOLA team plans to begin searching the surface for the LRA soon. Lasers generated by LOLA hit the lunar surface and reflect back to the spacecraft. The signal would be markedly different after bouncing off the high-quality LRA mirrors. If the LRA is still there, there’s a good chance the LOLA team will spot it.
Even if the LRA survived the crash, there’s no guarantee it will be usable anymore. It might have landed upside down or under debris from the crash. The LRA has a 120-degree angle of reception, so it will still work even if just one of the 0.5-inch quarts cube mirrors is visible. We should know soon enough whether that is the case.
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