A small spacecraft named Beresheet took off on a trip to the moon yesterday, vaulting an improbable group of privately funded Israeli scientists to heights achieved only by the world's largest government space agencies.
The lender, referred to as "Beresheet" (to start with), will launch at eight:45 p.m. EST (0145 GMT, Feb. 22) from Cape Canaveral Air Power Station in Florida. SpaceIL, the non-profit behind the project, hopes Beresheet ("In the beginning" in Hebrew) will prove an inspiration to all those who follow its progress.
If the launch is successful, Beresheet is due to arrive on the near side of the moon in April following a two-month journey through 4 million miles (6.5 million km) of space.
For Israel, the landing itself is the main mission, but the spacecraft also carries a scientific instrument to measure the lunar magnetic field, which will help understanding of the Moon's formation.
Israel seeks to become the fourth country in the world, after Russian Federation, the United States and China, to land a spacecraft on the moon.
The scheme, which grew out of a drunken conversation in Tel Aviv less than a decade ago, would be the first private space mission ever to reach the moon. "This is a big milestone".
The Falcon 9 took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday carrying SpaceIL's Beresheet lander, as well as an Indian communications satellite called Nusantara Satu.
"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.
The SpaceIL venture would be the first of these designs to launch, and Israel now has a shot at turning into the fourth nation to land a robotic probe on the moon - after the previous Soviet Union, America and China. The 1,290-pound (585 kg) spacecraft was built by Israeli nonprofit space venture SpaceIL and state-owned defence contractor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) with $100 million furnished nearly entirely by private donors. The two others are a telecommunications satellite for Indonesia and an experimental satellite for the U.S. Air Force.
Beresheet carries a "time capsule" loaded with digital files containing a Bible, children's drawings, Israeli songs, memories of a Holocaust survivor and the blue-and-white Israeli flag.
"Congratulations to SpaceIL and the Israel Space Agency", said Bridenstine. The contest closed without a victor, but SpaceIL chose to continue and get funding from elsewhere.