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In the beginning: Israeli 'Beresheet' lander launches for the moon

February 21, 2019

— In the beginning, there was light from nine rocket engines.

The Beresheet lunar lander, built by the Israeli non-profit SpaceIL, lifted off for the moon on Thursday (Feb. 21) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The lander's name, "Beresheet," translates to "in the beginning" in Hebrew.

The first mission from Israel to launch for the moon, the Beresheet robotic probe is also the first-ever non-governmental spacecraft to aim for the lunar surface.

"I always thought we would get to the moon, but now it is happening and it is quite incredible," said Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL, at a pre-launch press briefing on Wednesday. "This is a group effort of a lot of people, starting with SpaceIL's engineering team and Israel Aerospace Industries, which partnered with us, and also some big and small philanthropists who helped us along the way."

The launch at 8:45 p.m. EST (0145 GMT Feb. 22) marked the beginning of a two-month voyage to the moon's surface.

About 30 minutes after lifting off, the Beresheet spacecraft separated as planned from the Falcon 9's second stage, entering an initial, elliptical orbit around Earth. SpaceIL's mission control in Yehud, Israel established communications with the probe a few minutes later and sent the command to deploy the lander's four legs.

Over the next nine hours, the small spacecraft was expected to coast up to 40,000 miles (60,000 kilometers) and then fall back towards Earth, gaining velocity. At its closest pass to the planet, the probe will fire its engines to gain even more speed, raising its orbit. After as many as 10 such maneuvers over the next seven weeks, Beresheet's elliptical orbit will top out at 250,000 miles (400,000 km), high enough to reach the moon.

"The most dramatic maneuver is the lunar capture maneuver, in which we will try to be in the position that the moon['s gravity] will capture us and we start orbiting the moon," explained Yigal Harel, SpaceIL's vice president and the director of its spacecraft program.

Should all go to plan, Beresheet will fire its propulsion system to slow its approach and enter lunar orbit on April 4.

Landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon. Click to enlarge in new window. (SpaceIL)

The spacecraft will then spend a week in lunar orbit, circulating its elliptical path around the moon before beginning its descent to the surface. The 5-foot-tall (1.5 m) lander is planned to touchdown in an area that is 20-square-miles (30 square-km) on April 11.

"Our landing site is Mare Serenitatis. In English, it is the 'Quiet Sea,'" said Harel, referring to an area on the moon also known as the Sea of Serenity.

Located adjacent to the Sea of Tranquility where NASA's Apollo 11 mission made the first moon landing by astronauts 50 years ago, Mare Serenitatis is also near the landing sites of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 and the Soviet Union's Luna 21 robotic mission in 1973.

"We chose this place because it has a magnetic field and we want, as a scientific mission, to measure the magnetic field there," said Harel.

In addition to studying the magnetism of the area's moon rocks, the Beresheet lander will capture panoramas and selfies. It also carries a laser retroreflector as part of an agreement with NASA and a time capsule on three digital discs that includes a copy of Israel's Declaration of Independence, a copy of the Bible and an archive of Hebrew songs, prayers, art and literature.

The time capsule also includes science-themed paintings by Israeli children.

"Apart from getting to the moon, in the very beginning we thought we could do something that is actually a lot more than that," said Winetraub. "We thought we could convince kids to pursue careers in science and engineering."

Among SpaceIL's goals for the mission is to create an "Apollo Effect," repeating in Israel what the U.S. moon landing missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s did for science and technology education in the states.

"I think the time capsule incorporates the dreams and hopes of all of those who were involved in building the spaceship," said Winetraub.

The Beresheet lander is planned to operate on the lunar surface for only two days, before its systems succumb to the extreme temperatures. Originally designed as an entrant to the now-canceled Google Lunar X Prize, the mission had previously also included a hop by the lander as part of the competition's requirements.

If successful, Israel will become the fourth nation, and the first small country, to land a mission on the moon after the Soviet Union, United States and China. The Beresheet spacecraft will be the second privately-funded spacecraft to fly to the moon, following a Hughes communications satellite that in 1998 used the moon's gravity to salvage its mission in Earth orbit.

Thursday's Falcon 9 launch also carried an Indonesian communications satellite and a spacecraft for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. The three craft were carried to Earth orbit using a Falcon 9 first stage that had previously been flown twice before and which successfully landed again on an ocean-based droneship.


SpaceIL's Beresheet moon lander, the first Israeli lunar spacecraft, is seen before being encapsulated for launch. (SSL)

Artist's rendering of the trajectory SpaceIL's Beresheet spacecraft is following to reach and land on the moon. (SpaceIL)

Artist's rendering of SpaceIL's Beresheet lunar lander after touching down on the surface of the Sea of Serenity on the moon. (SpaceIL)

An arrow points to the area within Mare Serenitatis where SpaceIL plans the Beresheet spacecraft to land on April 11, 2019. (SpaceIL)

The final component to be installed on SpaceIL's Beresheet lunar lander was a digital time capsule with copies of the Bible, Israel's Declaration of Independence and children's artwork. (SpaceIL)

SpaceIL's Beresheet lunar lander launches on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (SpaceX)

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