Israel's first moon mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral
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Israel's first moon mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral

Cape Canaveral: Israel's first spacecraft designed to land on the moon has blasted off from Florida in the first privately funded lunar mission, as the Jewish state seeks to become only the fourth nation to reach the surface of Earth's natural satellite.

SpaceX launches a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral with a lunar lander.

SpaceX launches a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral with a lunar lander. Credit:SpaceX

The unmanned robotic explorer named Beresheet - Hebrew for "genesis" or "in the beginning" - lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8.45pm local time (12.45pm on Friday) atop a Falcon 9 rocket launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX company.

SpaceX launches a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral with a lunar lander and a telecommunications satellite.

SpaceX launches a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral with a lunar lander and a telecommunications satellite.Credit:SpaceX

Indonesia's Nusantara Satu communications satellite was the main cargo aboard the rocket, which illuminated the sky as it took flight, but the lunar lander - a first not just for Israel but commercial space - generated the buzz. The US Air Force also has a small research spacecraft on board for a one-year mission in orbit around Earth.

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The 585-kilogram, dishwasher-sized lunar lander was built by Israeli non-profit space venture SpaceIL and state-owned defence contractor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) with $US100 million furnished almost entirely by private donors.

Beresheet is due to arrive on the near side of the moon in April following a two-month, 6.5 million-kilometre journey.

An artist's impression of SpaceIL's lunar lander, Beresheet, landing on the moon.

An artist's impression of SpaceIL's lunar lander, Beresheet, landing on the moon.Credit:SpaceIL/TNS

SpaceIL said it hoped Beresheet would help inspire Israel's defence-focused space program to pursue more science missions by way of an "Apollo effect", referring to the manned lunar exploration program that became NASA's chief purpose in the 1960s and early '70s.

The United States, the former Soviet Union and China are the only three nations to date to have achieved controlled "soft" landings of spacecraft on the lunar surface.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Israel's lunar lander and an Indonesian communications satellite on the pad at space launch complex 40 on Thursday.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Israel's lunar lander and an Indonesian communications satellite on the pad at space launch complex 40 on Thursday.Credit:AP

The US Apollo program tallied six manned missions to the moon - the only ones yet achieved - between 1969 and 1972. There were about a dozen more unmanned landings by the US and Soviets. China made history in January with its Chang'e 4, the first to touch down on the dark side of the moon.

"This is the beginning of Israel's story in deep space ... whether this succeeds or fails," SpaceIL president and billionaire high-tech developer Morris Kahn, who invested $US44 million of his own money into the Beresheet project, said.

The Falcon 9 rocket will thrust Beresheet into a "long and complex" Earth orbit where it will spend roughly five weeks gradually widening its orbit until it is close enough to enter the moon's gravitational field.

From there, the spacecraft will execute a series of manoeuvres to reach its destination between the landing sites of Apollo 15 and 17 by mid-April.

During a mission slated to last just two to three days on the moon, Beresheet will use on-board instruments to photograph the landing site on the Sea of Tranquility, SpaceIL vice-president Yigal Harel said.

It will also measure the moon's magnetic field and send all the data back to SpaceIL's Israel-based ground station Yehud, via NASA's Deep Space Network, he said.

Israeli technicians stand next to the SpaceIL lunar module during a press tour of their facility near Tel Aviv last December.

Israeli technicians stand next to the SpaceIL lunar module during a press tour of their facility near Tel Aviv last December.Credit:AP

If successful, Beresheet will end up as the prototype for a series of future moon landing missions planned jointly by IAI and Germany's OHB System on behalf of the European Space Agency.

SpaceIL has no plans for future explorations of its own beyond Beresheet and "will not continue after this mission", Harel said.

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Beresheet will stay on the moon until someday, perhaps, Israeli astronauts can retrieve it.

Stored inside is a totem to the nation: a time capsule in the form of three disks containing Israeli artefacts such as its Proclamation of Independence, national songs and drawings by Israeli children.

"At SpaceIL we hope that the next generation of engineers and scientists will be able to bring Beresheet back to Earth," the company said.

The mission began in earnest in 2009, when founders Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub registered for Google’s Lunar X Prize - a moon race to build and land a commercial lunar spacecraft. The first competitors to do it would win a $US20 million first-place prize.

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They founded SpaceIL in 2011 and, in 2015, scored a launch contract with SpaceX. SpaceIL was later named one of five finalists for the prize, along with Cape Canaveral-based Moon Express.

But as the competition wore on, it became apparent that none of the companies were going to be able to meet the deadline to land on the moon, and so Google ultimately scrapped the competition in March 2018.

But SpaceIL and IAI pushed ahead, surviving financial challenges to complete the lander. In addition to Kahn, Dr Miriam Adelson, an Israeli-American doctor and philanthropist, and her husband, casino magnate and investor Sheldon Adelson, contributed $US24 million to keep the lunar lander soaring.

"It is high time that the Jewish people and the State of Israel achieved this immortal milestone," the Adelsons said in a news release.

"In religion and ethics, science and scholarship, we have long reached for the stars; now we are rightfully reaching the moon."

NASA’s Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s took about three days to get astronauts to the moon, but they used monstrous Saturn V rockets.

The Beresheet mission couldn’t afford its own rocket - even a little one - so the organisers opted for a ride share.

That makes for a much longer trip; the moon right now is nearly 370,000 kilometres away.

"This is Uber-style space exploration, so we’re riding shotgun on the rocket," Winetraub explained at a news conference on the eve of launch.

The Indonesian communications spacecraft is expected to operate for at least 15 years, NASA reports. It will provide broadband internet to rural parts of Indonesia.

smh.com.au, Reuters, The Orlando Sentinel, NASA, AP

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