An additional NASA payload known as the Lunar Retroreflector Array experiment may have survived the crash of Israel's Beresheet moon lander on April 11, scientists revealed.
With the Beresheet moon lander, Israel was supposed to make history as the first country to send a privately funded spacecraft to the moon, but instead of landing smoothly, the spacecraft crashed.
It turns out a technical glitch affected the spacecraft's main engine, which may have caused the accident.. Despite the failure of the April 11 landing, however, Israel plans to build a second moon lander, which they will call Beresheet 2.0.
On a positive note, the failure of the Beresheet moon landing does not mean that everything that the spacecraft carried was destroyed. Scientists believe that the NASA payload may have survived and may have been separated from the lunar lander's main spacecraft body.
What Is NASA's Lunar Retroreflector Array Experiment?
The Lunar Retroreflector Array experiment is a technology demonstration that consists of eight mirrors made of quartz cube corners, which are set into dome-shaped aluminum frame. The mirrors serve as markers for other spacecraft, so that precise landings will be made.
The NASA experiment is more lightweight and tinier than a computer mouse. The best part is that the Lunar Retroreflector Array has been designed to endure tough conditions such as radiation, and was specifically set for long-term use. This is the reason why scientists believe the experiment may not have been destroyed by the Beresheet's crash landing.
David Smith, principal investigator of the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft and a scientist from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, explained that the laser retroreflector array may have survived the crash, but they currently do not know its orientation.
"It could be upside down, but it has a 120-degree angle of reception, and we only need 1 of the 0.5-inch cubes for detection," explained Smith. "But it has certainly not made it any easier."
How To Detect The Missing Lunar Retroreflector Array
Smith said the LOLA team will be setting up observations to search for the Lunar Retroreflector Array soon.
The LOLA spacecraft works this way: laser beams generated by the instrument hit the surface of the moon and bounce back. Once the laser beams return, the LOLA instrument measures the beams' range or time of flight.
If the LOLA instrument manages to bounce off some laser beams into the Lunar Retroreflector Array, Smith and his team would be notified immediately.
Meanwhile, NASA plans to add more retroreflectors on the surface of the moon in the future. These retroreflectors would serve as "fiducial markers," which means future spacecraft could use them as points of reference to make soft landings.
The LRO also plans to capture the crash landing site of the Beresheet moon lander using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera System, added Smith.
Israel's Beresheet Moon Lander Takes Selfie With Earth
In early March, a month before its tragic crash landing, the Beresheet moon lander managed to capture a selfie with Earth. The moon lander looked back at Earth from a distance of 23,363.5 miles or about 37,600 kilometers. The continent of Australia was visible in the picture.
The Beresheet moon lander was created by the nonprofit group SpaceIL and the company Israel Aerospace Industries. It launched from Earth on Feb. 21 aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The Beresheet mission costs about $100 million.