An Israeli spacecraft rocketed toward the moon for the country’s first attempted lunar landing, following a launch Thursday night by SpaceX.
A communications satellite for Indonesia was the main cargo aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, which illuminated the sky as it took flight. But Israel’s privately funded lunar lander — a first not just for Israel but commercial space — generated the buzz.
Israel seeks to become only the fourth country to successfully land on the moon, after Russia, the U.S. and China. The spacecraft — called Beresheet, Hebrew for Genesis or “In The Beginning” — will take nearly two months to reach the moon.
“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.
The moon, nearly full and glowing brightly, beckoned as it rose in the eastern sky. Within an hour after liftoff, Beresheet was already sending back data and had successfully deployed its landing legs, according to SpaceIL.
“We’ll keep analyzing the data, but bottom line is we entered the very exclusive group of countries that have launched a spacecraft to the moon,” said Yigal Harel, head of SpaceIL’s spacecraft program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was watching the launch live from the Israeli control center in Yehud, near Tel Aviv.
“This is a big step for Israel, but a giant step for Israeli technology,” he said.
The four-legged Beresheet, barely the size of a washing machine, will circle Earth in ever bigger loops until it’s captured by lunar gravity and goes into orbit around the moon. Touchdown would be April 11 at the Sea of Serenity.
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 $100 million Beresheet mission couldn’t afford its own rocket — even a little one — so the organizers opted for a ride share. That makes for a much longer trip; the moon right now is nearly 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) 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.
Following liftoff, SpaceX recovered the first-stage booster, which flew twice last year. The booster landed smoothly on an offshore ocean platform, after the hottest re-entry yet, according to SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk. Sparks from burning metal were visible in the landing video.
Musk said the booster will fly a fourth time in April, during a launch abort test of the new crew Dragon capsule. No one will be aboard.
Japanese spacecraft reaches asteroid
A Japanese spacecraft touched down on a distant asteroid Friday on a mission to collect material that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.
Workers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency control center applauded Friday as a signal sent from space indicated the Hayabusa2 spacecraft had touched down.
During the touchdown, Hayabusa2 is programmed to extend a pipe and shoot a pinball-like object into the asteroid to blow up material from beneath the surface. If that succeeds, the craft would then collect samples to eventually be sent back to Earth. Three such touchdowns are planned.
Japanese Education Minister Masahiko Shibayama said the space agency had concluded from its data after the first touchdown that the steps to collect samples were performed successfully.
JAXA, as the Japanese space agency is known, has likened the touchdown attempts to trying to land on a baseball mound from the spacecraft’s operating location of 20 kilometers (12 miles) above the asteroid.
The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 900 meters (3,000 feet) in diameter and 280 million kilometers (170 million miles) from Earth.