Space history was made Thursday as the first private mission to the Moon lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. At 8:45 pm EST, Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander was lofted into space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to begin its two-month voyage to its landing site north of Mare Serenitatis.
Surprisingly for a lunar mission, Beresheet (Hebrew for “Genesis”) was not the star of this show, but a ride-along payload for SpaceX’s Nusantara Satu mission to deliver a communication satellite for PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara (PSN), a leading Asian provider of satellite-based telecommunication services, into Earth orbit along with the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) S5. The night launch took place under clear skies using a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage. No major malfunctions occurred and the payloads were deployed at approximately 33 and 44 min after lift off.
Built and operated by the non-profit SpaceIL organization, Beresheet was originally developed for the Google Lunar X-Prize, which ended without a winner, and is the smallest lander ever sent to the Moon with a mass of only 1,322 lb (600 kg). When it lands, it will make Israel the fourth nation to have reached the Moon after the United States, the Soviet Union, and China.
The US$95 million unmanned spacecraft stands 4.9 ft (1.5 m) high and is 6.5 ft (2 m) in diameter. When fully fueled, propellant will make up 75 percent of its weight. Instead of being inserted into translunar orbit by an upper stage rocket, the lander separated from the Falcon 9 second stage at an altitude of 37,282 mi (60,000 km) and will execute a series of orbital maneuvers to push it into increasingly eccentric orbital trajectories over the course of two months. It will then autonomously fire its engines for a soft touchdown on the Moon.
Once on the Moon, Beresheet will return images and videos as well as deploy its magnetometer experiment and a laser reflector array provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In addition, it carries a digital time capsule containing over 50 million pages of data, including the whole Wikipedia, the Bible, children’s drawings, a holocaust survivor memorial, the Israeli national anthem, the Israeli flag, and the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
After the successful launch, SpaceX recovered the Falcon 9 first stage in a powered landing on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean.
The video below is a replay of the live launch feed (the launch takes place at the 17:45 mark, the landing at 26:32).