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SpaceIL's Beresheet spacecraft crashes after engine issues

By Brooks Hays

April 11 (UPI) -- Beresheet made history as the first privately funded spacecraft to orbit the moon, but failed to stick the landing Thursday afternoon after experiencing engine issues during its descent.

"#Beresheet's main engine fail! Spacecraft failed landing. Appeared to have crashed on the moon's surface!" the Israel Space Agency tweeted.

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A combination of engine and communications errors resulted in a crash landing.

Last week, Beresheet executed the engine burn needed to put itself into orbit around the moon. After a further series of burns on Wednesday, the craft prepared to begin its landing sequence just after 3 p.m. ET on Thursday, but a series of issues with communications, telemetry and engine function prevented it from successfully landing on the moon.

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The landing was expected to be somewhere inside the moon's Mare Serenitatis, or Sea of Serenity. Once on the surface, the lander was to traverse the sea's surface, taking pictures of its surroundings.

Beresheet was designed and built by SpaceIL, a privately funded nonprofit based in Israel. The team of scientists and engineers began working on the project in 2011 as part of the Google Lunar X-Prize competition.

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When Google folded the contest, SpaceIL decided to continue on. Last week, the XPrize Foundation announced it would award SpaceIL $1 million if Beresheet sticks the landing on Thursday.

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On Wednesday night, the spacecraft shifted into a more elliptical orbit in preparation for its moon landing.

"We are ready for landing!" SpaceIL announced on Twitter.

But the British-built engine that helped take Beresheet from Earth to the moon failed to properly slow the spacecraft during its final descent.

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"We've never used an engine in this kind of application before," Rob Westcott, senior propulsion engineer at Nammo, which built Beresheet's engine, told the BBC. "The big challenge is the fact that the engine is going to have to be switched on and get very hot, then switched off for a short period of time when all that heat is remaining in its thermal mass, and then fired up again, very accurately and very precisely such that it slows the craft down and lands very softly on the surface on the moon."

As an Israeli-based mission, Beresheet was attempting to make Israel the fourth country in history to put a spacecraft on the moon. China, Russia and the United States are the only other countries to successfully land a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

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