The first Israeli lunar spacecraft Beresheet (Hebrew for Genesis) was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 3:45 a.m. (Israel time) on Friday (8:45 p.m. Thursday EST), aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The first stage entry burn completed uneventfully less than three minutes after lift-off. At 4:23 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. Initial data was then received from the spacecraft and the landing legs deployed soon after, at 4:25.
The spacecraft will orbit the Earth in elliptical orbits and will travel 6.5 million kilometers – the longest distance ever traveled to the moon. During these orbits, the spacecraft will raise its orbit around Earth until it reaches the proximity of the moon. When the spacecraft is in lunar orbit, about ten days before landing, it will orbit it until the appropriate time and an autonomous landing process will begin. The route will take about two months until the expected landing on April 11, 2019.
The spacecraft, which weighs only 600 kilograms, is considered the smallest to land on the moon. The height of Beresheet is 1.5 meters, it is about two meters wide and it carries fuel which is approximately 75 percent of its weight. Its maximum speed will reach 10 km per second (36,000 km/h).
Hundreds of people gathered at IAI’s facility in Yehud to watch a live feed of the launch from Florida. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also arrived at the control room, referred to the initiative as “a great step for Israel, and a huge step for Israel’s technology.” The prime minister called Israel a “small but huge country” noting that despite its smaller land mass and population compared to the other participating nations, Israel is a “giant in initiative, huge in achievements.”
President Reuven Rivlin also lauded the launch. “Mazal Tov, the State of Israel, you have a spacecraft. If Beresheet travels on the difficult path and lands on the Moon, Israel will be the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the Moon. It used to be imaginary, but now it's reality. A tremendous step for the state. A first-rate scientific, technological and educational project.”
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, primarily by Morris Kahn. If the project is successful, Israel will become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon.
“The successful launch positions Israel on the map,” said Morris Kahn, President of SpaceIL. “History has been made. We look forward to an amazing seven-week journey that will mark yet another historic event. We cross our fingers for Beresheet. Thank you to the amazing teams if SpaceIL and IAI.”
Ido Antebi, CEO of the SpaceIL NGO: “We arrived at the launch with a fully tested spacecraft on its way for a highly challenging mission. I am proud of SpaceIL and IAI teams who made this accomplishment possible with professional work, perseverance and collaboration, if everything goes well, the spacecraft will enter a cruising orbit around Earth within an hour from the launch. In the next two months, Beresheet will continue its challenging journey until it lands on the moon.”
Once landed on the moon, the spacecraft carrying the Israeli flag will begin taking photographs of the landing site and a “selfie” to prove it has indeed landed on the moon. The spacecraft has an important scientific mission to complete: measure the moon’s magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute.
NASA is also participating in the mission under an agreement entered with Israel Space Agency. NASA has installed a laser retroreflector on the spacecraft and will assist in communicating the spacecraft on the moon.
The spacecraft also carries a "time capsule" – a huge database of hundreds of digital files ranging from details about SpaceIL, the spacecraft and the crew of the project, national symbols, cultural items and materials collected from the general public over the years to be placed on the moon by the spacecraft. Since the spacecraft is not expected to return to Earth, the information it carries is destined to remain on the moon for an indefinite period and may be found and distributed by future generations.
[Sources: IAI, The Times of Israel, The Jerusalem Post, Israel National News, CNBC]