Israel’s first lunar-bound spacecraft successfully blasted off early Friday morning, embarking on a seven-week trip to land on the moon. If the privately funded Beresheet project is successful, Israel will become just the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon.
Beresheet lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 3:45 a.m. Israel time (8:45 p.m. Thursday EST), catching a ride on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX commercial space launches.
The start of the flight went smoothly, with the first stage entry burn completed uneventfully less than three minutes after lift-off. At 4:25 am, 38 minutes after takeoff, Beresheet successfully detached from the Falcon 9 rocket, in the first test of its ability to function under its own power.
Hundreds of people gathered at the Israel Aerospace Industries in Yehud to watch a live feed of the launch from Florida. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also on hand, blessed the initiative, calling it “a great step for Israel, and a giant step for Israel’s technology.”
“I asked that a Tanakh, an Israeli flag and the writing ‘Am Yisrael Chai‘ [the People of Israel Live] be taken to the moon,” he said. “They told me ‘It’s OK. It has already been taken care of.'”
The four-legged Beresheet, barely the size of a washing machine, will circle Earth in ever bigger loops until it’s captured by lunar gravity and goes into orbit around the moon. Touchdown would be April 11 at the Sea of Serenity.
Lior Ezrai will be the first spacecraft controller to have full control over Beresheet, and will be in charge of initiating the on-board motors to gently ease the spacecraft into the correct elliptical.
“It is really exciting,” said Ezrai moments before returning to the command center ahead of the launch. “I have been a bit stressed about the launch, but it is going to be really exciting to be the first to be able to control it and see that all the systems are working.”
“We had a successful launch, were injected into a good orbit, separated well, and have good communications,” said Dr. Ofer Doron, the general manager of the Space Division at Israel Aerospace Industries.
There is a small problem with one of the star trackers, which helps the spacecraft orient itself using the position of the stars, but Doron said there are other ways that the spacecraft will be able to maneuver onto the correct path.
The $100 million (NIS 370 million) spacecraft is a joint venture between private companies SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists, including South African billionaire Morris Kahn, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Lynn Schusterman, and others.
Previously, Russia (as the Soviet Union) and the United States have landed on the moon. China landed an unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the moon in 2013.
SpaceIL was the only Israeli contestant in the international Google LunarX PRIZE competition, which offered participants a chance to win $20 million by landing an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. Google ended the contest officially on March 31, 2018, with no winner. But the group behind SpaceIL decided to continue its mission, turning to donors to help fund the barebones operation.
The Beresheet spacecraft will measure magnetic fields on the moon, data which will be transferred to the Weizmann Institute to help scientists study how the moon was formed billions of years ago. Beresheet will send information for approximately two to three days before the sun’s rays are expected to melt parts of the communication system, ending the mission.
The Beresheet team hopes that the excitement around Israel’s first moon landing will have an “Apollo effect” reminiscent of the ’60s, when space travel inspired hundreds of thousands of children in America to study science and aerospace engineering.
The public voted on the name Beresheet, which is the Hebrew word for the Book of Genesis and also means “In the beginning.” The spacecraft is carrying a Hebrew Bible inscribed with nanotechnology on a small metal circle the size of a NIS 5 coin, and a time capsule with Israel’s Declaration of Independence and national anthem, the memories of a Holocaust survivor, children’s drawings of space and the moon, the Traveler’s Prayer and a note from the late president Shimon Peres.
The time capsule also includes a picture of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died aboard space shuttle Columbia in 2003 — as well as a lunar library containing 30 million pages on a disk from the US-based Arch Mission Foundation.
Ramon’s widow, Rona, was a big supporter of Beresheet; she died of cancer in December.
The Beresheet Command Center in Yehud, about 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, is where the spacecraft was built and tested, including spending 10-day periods in a massive vacuum that blasted the spacecraft alternately with extreme heat and cold in order to ensure it can stand up to the wide temperature fluctuations in space.
Space travel is going the way of Uber and the sharing economy, with international space agencies looking to cut costs by using “ride shares” to hitchhike into space on existing commercial launches.
Following liftoff, SpaceX recovered the first-stage booster, which flew twice last year. The booster landed smoothly on an offshore ocean platform, after the hottest re-entry yet, according to SpaceX founder and chief executive Musk. Sparks from burning metal were visible in the landing video.
The Falcon 9 rocket that brought Beresheet into space also deployed a large geo-communication satellite and other equipment for the US Air Force. While Musk has cornered the market on commercial rocket launches, SpaceIL and IAI are hoping to find a niche in inexpensive moon landings, so space agencies or, one day, private individuals or organizations, could send cameras and research equipment to the moon for their own purposes.
Agencies contributed to this report.