Israel's First Moon Mission Blasts Off From Florida

The unmanned Genesis spaceship, which has already set several records, is scheduled to land on the moon on April 11

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The SpaceX rocket that took off from Florida's Cape Canaveral carrying Israel's Beresheet spacecraft, on Thursday, February 21, 2019.
The SpaceX rocket that took off from Florida's Cape Canaveral carrying Israel's Beresheet spacecraft, on Thursday, February 21, 2019.Credit: AFP
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

The unmanned Genesis spacecraft (“Beresheet” in Hebrew), Israel’s first-ever spacecraft bound for the moon, was launched at 3:45 A.M. Israel time Friday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft detached from the Falcon rocket that launched it 33 minutes after takeoff, and began its orbit around the earth. 

Friday’s launch could set several records. It will be the smallest and least expensive spaceship ever to land on the moon and will put Israel among the ranks of the superpowers, the United States, Russia and China, which have successfully carried out lunar landings of various kinds.

A simulation of Israel's Genesis spacecraft on the moon.Credit: SpaceIL

On Sunday, it is scheduled to start up its motors for the first time, in order to gradually increase the size of its orbit around planet earth and move closer toward the moon. It is scheduled to land there April 11. 

Genesis was privately built by the non-profit group SpaceIL in cooperation with Israel Aeronautics Industries. Hundreds of SpaceIL volunteers gathered at the operation room at IAI’s Yehud offices in order to watch the launch.

“The hard part is yet to come,” noted Yariv Bash, one of SpaceIL’s three founders. “Transitioning from orbiting around planet earth to orbiting around the moon.”

Netanyahu attends an event to watch the launch of the Israeli spacecraft "Beresheet" from the Israel Aerospace Industries control room, in Yehud, Israel, on February 22, 2019.Credit: Eliran Avital

The spacecraft is due to undergo a series of checks to verify that all its systems are working, he said. “The spacecraft is operational,” he said. “Now it needs to start its work.”

At a press conference after the launch, SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby said the launch had been successful, and that the spacecraft and the Indian communications satellite carrying it — the main payload of the launch — had detached successfully from the rocket. The control room succeeded in making contact with the spacecraft following the launch, he added.
At a press conference last week, the president of SpaceIL, Morris Kahn, who donated $40 million of the $100 million cost of the spacecraft, said Genesis was presented as a gift to President Reuven Rivlin and declared a national project.

In addition to the national pride that the project, which is not entirely a private venture, generates, the symbolic importance of Genesis is huge and the launch has sparked global interest. The spacecraft itself is mostly a demonstration of the capabilities that the project has drawn on. Its scientific mission is simple and the plan is for it to stay on the moon for just two days. Up to this point, only China has had the proven technology necessary for a soft landing on the moon.

The unmanned Genesis spacecraft “(Beresheet” in Hebrew) ahead of the launch, on February 22, 2019.Credit: יואב וייס

Israel’s success could lead to a whole host of future lunar landings and create an entirely different business model in which private firms would offer a range of services. Customers would be able to purchase a spot on a spacecraft for their equipment — ranging from scientific instruments and communications technology to clients who want to spread the ashes of their loved ones on the moon. In the longer term, firms could try to reach the moon to produce products, from precious metals to water that could be used to fuel rockets or to actually settle the moon.

SpaceIL’s project began as an initiative of three young people, Bash, Kfir Damari and Yehonatan Weintraub, who in 2010 registered for Google’s Lunar XPRIZE competition. The competition ended in March of last year without a winner, but SpaceIL announced that it would continue to pursue the plans. With the assistance of private donors and with the support of Israel’s Science, Technology and Space Ministry, the threesome managed to fulfill their dream with the launch.

The path that Genesis will take as it heads to the moon will include elliptical orbits of increasing size around the Earth, during which the spacecraft will make use of the Earth’s gravitational pull to increase its speed. All told, Genesis is scheduled to travel 6.5 million kilometers (4 million miles), making it the lunar mission with the longest path ever traveled. 

On its final orbit, the spacecraft is scheduled to approach the moon itself, to be followed by a complex maneuver in which it will attempt to be pulled into the lunar field of gravity — about 10 days before it actually lands on the moon. If everything goes well, it will orbit the moon until the timing is right for a landing, which is currently scheduled for April 11. 

“Our journey to the moon is full of challenges, and therefore our mission is immeasurably complex. Every step that we take successfully will pave the way for the success of the next step, until the landing on the moon,” Anteby said at a press conference last week. 

Genesis, which weighs just 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds), and whose $100 million price tag compares with billions that have been spent on prior lunar missions, was planned without a backup system in the event of a technical malfunction. The spacecraft is a meter and a half tall and 2 meters wide (nearly 5 feet tall and 6 and a half feet wide). Its maximum planned speed is 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) per second. 

It will be carrying equipment to measure the moon’s magnetic field, which astronomers still don’t fully understand. In addition, after the spacecraft lands, it will take a selfie of itself and of the Israeli flag from the lunar surface. Genesis also has a time capsule on board with hundreds of digital files, from details regarding the construction of the spacecraft and the team involved, to national symbols, cultural information and other material collected from members of the public over the years. It also has a Jewish bible. 

One of the motivations leading the various partners in the project to support it is the hope that it will spawn the Israeli equivalent of the Apollo effect in the United States, created in connection with the American program to land a man on the moon, leading up to the actual landing of Apollo 11 in 1969. The Israeli entrepreneurs and their donors hope that a successful Genesis mission will encourage Israeli young people to take an interest in space and science and engineering.

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