Published: Sat, February 23, 2019
Science | By Celia Watts

Israel's first Moon mission blasts off from Florida

Israel's first Moon mission blasts off from Florida

After the successful launch of the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet into space, the team in the control room was looking into a small problem with its star navigation system on Friday.

Israel will launch its spacecraft dubbed "Beresheet", or "beginning" in Hebrew, in the nation's first mission to land on the Moon's surface. It's a first not just for Israel but for commercial space. The other two items taken up were an Indonesian communications satellite and a US Air Force experimental satellite. The moon doesn't have a global magnetic field like Earth does, but specific regions and rocks are magnetized, as previous lunar expeditions have found. Mare Serenitatis is one of these regions, and Beresheet aims to collect more data about it. NASA and SpaceIL will share that data, as part of their flight support agreement.

Just minutes after blasting off, the Falcon 9's nine-engine suborbital main-stage booster rocket could be seen in the sky just as the moon appeared over the horizon. Previously, only the U.S., U.S.S.R, and China have landed spacecraft on the moon. "Israel is aiming for the #moon and you're all invited to watch", said a Twitter message from SpaceIL, the non-profit organization that designed the Israeli craft.

Spacecraft from several countries, including India's Moon Impact Probe, Japan's SELENE orbiter and a European Space Agency orbital probe called SMART 1, have intentionally crashed on the lunar surface. Created to radically improve the ease and speed of Falcon 9 booster reuse, Block 5 debuted in May 2018 and has now launched 12 times, with half of those missions flying on flight-proven boosters.

These were "hard landings", meaning the craft crashed into the moon.

Aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the spacecraft will orbit the Earth after detaching from the launcher, and land on the moon around April 11. After all, the Apollo missions flew directly to the moon, landing less than a week after launch. The spacecraft is also equipped with the ability to "hop" short distances on the moon, and engineers say they're confident it carries the fuel to do so. More recently, China's Chang'e-4 spacecraft reached lunar orbit a few days after launch.

First Beresheet will orbit the Earth for not quite two months. It is also the first private rather than government effort with funds coming from private donors including Morris Kahn and Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. Once on the surface, it will set up retroreflectors which NASA can bounce lasers off to get a highly accurate measurement of the distance to the moon. Data will be relayed via the USA space agency NASA's Deep Space Network to SpaceIL's Israel-based ground station Yehud.

SpaceIL had planned to meet the 500-meter movement requirement by partially launching and relanding Beresheet.

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