To the Moon

Weizmann-led experiment on board Israel’s first lunar spacecraft

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Features

Date: January 15, 2019
Source: 
Weizmann homepage

Israel’s first unmanned interplanetary spacecraft will launch in the beginning of 2019 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida. If it lands on the Moon two months later, as hoped, Israel will join an exclusive club of countries—U.S., Russia, and China—that have sent spacecraft to the surface of Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor. The spacecraft was recently named Beresheet, the Hebrew word for ‘beginning’ and Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.

The Moon mission, spearheaded by the nonprofit organization SpaceIL, is meant to both swell national pride and create an ‘Apollo effect’—to inspire future generations to pursue studies in fields of science and technology. The term was coined after the first humans landed on the Moon in 1969, which led to a surge of interest in science in the 1970s. But the Israeli mission has an additional purpose: to better understand the Moon’s magnetic field, the mission’s central research project, led by the Weizmann Institute’s Prof. Oded Aharonson, who is also the Mission Scientist for SpaceIL.

Prof. Aharonson, a member of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, not only helped the SpaceIL team determine where on the Moon to land (Mare Serenitatis, in the northern hemisphere, between Apollo 15 and 17), but is also using the opportunity to measure the Moon’s magnetic field in a way that has not been attempted to date.

The Earth has two magnetic fields: one ‘global’, that emanates from the Earth’s hot core and serves to protect the Earth’s atmosphere, and one ‘local’, remnant in the surface rocks, which was inherited from the global field as the hot magma cooled. But the Moon only has a local field. “The big puzzle is, if there is no global magnetic field on the Moon, how, and when, did the Moon’s rocks acquire their magnetism? This is the question we’re trying to answer,” says Prof. Aharonson.

This is not the first time that the Moon’s magnetic field will be measured, but it would be the most ambitious in terms of the resolution of data the mission plans to acquire. Prof. Aharoson’s lunar magnetometer, built at UCLA and installed aboard the spacecraft, will take measurements as the spacecraft is approaching the Moon and after it lands, so “we’ll have more accurate data, about more magnetic anomalies, and at higher-resolution,” he says. “Our ultimate aim is to create a profile of the magnetic field of the Moon and understand its origin.”

That information will allow him and other planetary scientists on his international team to figure out how long ago the Moon’s magnetization process began, and bring scientists one small step—borrowing from Neil Armstrong’s famous words—closer to understanding of the Moon’s birth and evolution.

A liftoff grounded in partnership around science

The journey of the SpaceX Falcon 9—which will carry Beresheet—is risky, as is the landing. But the momentum behind the Space IL project has galvanized important players who feel the sky is no longer the limit when it comes to the prowess and promise of Israeli science and technology.

SpaceIL began as a hopeful contender in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition to land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon, and was one of five finalists. When Google announced the end of the competition and its $30 million cash prize a year ago, SpaceIL decided to nevertheless do what it set out to do. The project, a partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), is privately funded, mostly by Morris Kahn (who is also SpaceIL’s President), Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Sami Sagol, Nancy and Stephen Grand (all Weizmann Institute donors as well), Sylvan Adams, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and others. SpaceIL is also supported by Ministry of Science and Technology, the Israel Space Agency (ISA), and Bezeq.

In October, NASA became a partner, offering to contribute two components to the mission. The first is usage of its Deep Space Network for mission communication that will receive data from the spacecraft and Prof. Aharonson’s lunar magnetometer. These data will be made publicly available. The second is a ‘Laser Retroreflector Array’—a series of small carefully arranged mirrors that will enable fined-tuned measurements of the distance to the Moon. If the reflector array proves useful, NASA plans to use similar ones in the future to measure distances between various objects and planets in space.

Prof. Oded Aharonson is supported by the Helen Kimmel Center for Planetary Science which he heads, the Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, and Adolf and Mary Mil Foundation.

A rendering of the SpaceIL's Beresheet spacecraft conducting its planned scientific mission to measure the magnetic field of the Moon. Credit: SpaceIL

A rendering of the SpaceIL's Beresheet spacecraft conducting its planned scientific mission to measure the magnetic field of the Moon. Credit: SpaceIL

SpaceIL’s Mission Scientist Prof. Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute next to the Beresheet spacecraft after integration of the magnetometer instrument.

SpaceIL’s Mission Scientist Prof. Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute next to the Beresheet spacecraft after integration of the magnetometer instrument.