SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Israeli moon lander

An artist’s impression of the Israeli Beresheet lander on the surface of the moon. Image: SpaceIL

The Israeli Beresheet – “in the beginning” – moon lander, the first privately-funded spacecraft ever built for a powered descent to the lunar surface, is safely on its way thanks to a picture-perfect launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Developed by SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit focused on spurring student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – careers, Beresheet hitched a ride to space with an Indonesian communications satellite launched 21 February from Cape Canaveral.

Released into the same highly elliptical “transfer” orbit as the Nusantara Satu communications station, Beresheet’s off-the-shelf main engine fired for the first time 24 February to adjust the spacecraft’s trajectory. Over the course of 10 planned manoeuvres, the spacecraft will raise the high point of its orbit to the point where it intercepts the moon’s, allowing it to be captured by lunar gravity.

That milestone is expected on 4 April. If all goes well, the small spacecraft will attempt a powered descent to the moon’s Sea of Serenity – Mare Serenitatis – on April 11, using a sensitive magnetometer on the way down to measure magnetic field strength. Once on the surface, a high-resolution camera will photograph the landing site in detail. The mission is expected to last just two days.

But if successful, the $100 million mission will give Israel membership in an exclusive club, joining the United States, the former Soviet Union and China as the only nations to land spacecraft on another world.

A time exposure captures the fiery ascent of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the way to boosting the Beresheet lunar lander into space. Image: SpaceX

“We have a vision to show off Israel’s best qualities to the entire world,” said Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli businessman and an enthusiastic donor to the SpaceIL project.

“Tiny Israel, tiny, tiny Israel, is about to become the fourth nation to land on the moon,” he told reporters before launch. “And this is a remarkable thing, because we continue to demonstrate our ability to punch far, far, far above our weight, and to show off our skills, our innovation, our creativity in tackling any difficult problem that could possibly exist.”