World

SpaceX rocket blasts off carrying Israeli lunar lander

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Thursday night carrying Israel's first lunar lander on a mission that, if successful, will make the Jewish state only the fourth nation to ever to achieve a controlled touchdown on the moon's surface.

If successful, Israel will become 4th nation to make a controlled landing on the moon

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Israel's first spacecraft designed to land on the moon lifted off on a privately-funded lunar mission from Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday evening. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Thursday night carrying Israel's first lunar lander on a mission that, if successful, will make the Jewish state only the fourth nation to achieve a controlled touchdown on the moon's surface.

The unmanned robotic lander dubbed Beresheet — Hebrew for the biblical phrase "in the beginning" — soared into space from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at about 8:45 p.m. ET atop the 23-storey-tall rocket. A half-hour after liftoff, the lunar lander was free and on its way.

"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 organization behind the effort.

Beresheet, about the size of a dishwasher, was one of three payloads carried aloft by the Falcon 9, part of the private rocket fleet of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's California-based company SpaceX.

Nighttime launches are less common at Cape Canaveral: 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Thursday night carrying Israel's first lunar lander. 0:30

The two other payloads set for deployment are a telecommunications satellite for Indonesia and an experimental satellite for the U.S. Air Force.

Just a few minutes after blastoff, the Falcon 9's nine-engine suborbital main stage booster separated from the upper stage, flew back to Earth and landed safely on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast.

If all goes according to plan for Beresheet, the lander will arrive on the near-side of the moon in mid-April following a two-month journey through 6.5 million km of space. A flight path directly from the Earth to the moon would cover roughly 386,242 km.

Once deployed, the spacecraft will enter a gradually widening Earth orbit that will eventually bring the probe within the moon's gravitational pull, setting the stage for a series of additional manoeuvres leading to an automated touchdown.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was watching the launch live from the Israeli control centre in Yehud, near Tel Aviv.

"This is a big step for Israel, but a giant step for Israeli technology," he said.

With files from The Associated Press