A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Thursday night carrying Israel’s first lunar lander on a mission that, if successful, will make the Jewish state only the fourth nation to achieve a controlled touchdown on the moon’s surface.
The unmanned robotic lander dubbed Beresheet — Hebrew for the biblical phrase “in the beginning” — soared into space from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at about 8:45 p.m. ET atop the 23-storey-tall rocket. A half-hour after liftoff, the lunar lander was free and on its way.
“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 organization behind the effort.
Beresheet, about the size of a dishwasher, was one of three payloads carried aloft by the Falcon 9, part of the private rocket fleet of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s California-based company SpaceX.
Nighttime launches are less common at Cape Canaveral:
The two other payloads set for deployment are a telecommunications satellite for Indonesia and an experimental satellite for the U.S. Air Force.
Just a few minutes after blastoff, the Falcon 9’s nine-engine suborbital main stage booster separated from the upper stage, flew back to Earth and landed safely on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast.
If all goes according to plan for Beresheet, the lander will arrive on the near-side of the moon in mid-April following a two-month journey through 6.5 million km of space. A flight path directly from the Earth to the moon would cover roughly 386,242 km.
Once deployed, the spacecraft will enter a gradually widening Earth orbit that will eventually bring the probe within the moon’s gravitational pull, setting the stage for a series of additional maneuvers leading to an automated touchdown.