israel rocket launch

Israel launches its first lunar lander on SpaceX rocket

Image credit: reuters

Israel has sent its first lunar lander to the moon on top of a SpaceX rocket. If successful, the mission will make the state only the fourth to achieve a controlled touchdown on the moon’s surface.

A communications satellite for Indonesia was the main cargo aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, which illuminated the sky as it took flight.

The unmanned robotic lander is called Beresheet, Hebrew for the biblical phrase “in the beginning”, and will take nearly two months to reach the moon.

“We thought it’s about time for a change, and we want to get little Israel all the way to the moon,” said Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of Israel’s SpaceIL, a nonprofit organisation behind the effort.

Within an hour after lift-off, the lander was already sending back data and had successfully deployed its landing legs, according to SpaceIL.

The four-legged Beresheet, barely the size of a washing machine, will circle Earth in ever bigger loops until it is captured by lunar gravity and goes into orbit around the moon. Touchdown will be on 11 April at the Sea of Serenity.

Beresheet would mark the first non-government lunar landing. The 585kg spacecraft was built by Israeli nonprofit space venture SpaceIL and state-owned defence contractor Israel Aerospace Industries with $100m furnished almost entirely by private donors.

Later today Nasa is expected to decide whether to give its final go-ahead to SpaceX for a first unmanned test flight on 2 March of a new capsule the company designed for carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Nasa’s Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s took about three days to get astronauts to the moon, but they used huge Saturn V rockets.

“This is Uber-style space exploration, so we’re riding shotgun on the rocket,” said Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL.

The Soviet Union was the first to put a spacecraft on the moon, Luna 2, in 1959.

Nasa followed with the Ranger 4 spacecraft in 1962. Last month, China became the first country to land on the far side of the moon. 

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin quickly offered congratulations following Thursday’s launch.

“All the best to @TeamSpaceIL as it starts its journey tonight on a @SpaceX #Falcon9 from Florida to my old stomping ground ...the moon,” Aldrin tweeted.

Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine called it “a historic step for all nations and commercial space as we look to extend our collaborations beyond low-Earth orbit and on to the moon”.

The Beresheet mission originally was part of the Google Lunar XPrize competition and even made the final cut before the contest ended last year without a winner.

The organisers decided to press ahead on their own, with donations from billionaires as well as schoolchildren.

Lunar surface operations are meant to last just two days.

Beresheet will measure the magnetic field at the landing site, and send back data and pictures.

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