On Thursday evening, just after 5:45 p.m. PT, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a small spacecraft on its way to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And if the little lander, known as Beresheet, makes it all the way to the lunar surface, it'll mark several milestones that've been years in the making.
SpaceIL, the Israel-based nonprofit that's been working on the lander for eight years, is one of the original Google Lunar XPrize teams. Though the competition ended last year without a winner, SpaceIL is now poised to be the first among nearly 30 teams to make it to the moon on its own anyway.
For SpaceX, the launch and retrieval of the Falcon 9 first stage was one of the most challenging returns to date. Weather conditions were extremely poor, but the reusable booster landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship eight minutes after liftoff. This is the third time this particular booster has been sent up and has come back to Earth and, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the highest re-entry heating to date. The booster will fly for a fourth time in a planned in-flight abort test later this year.
But the mission is really all about Beresheet. Provided it makes it to the moon, the mission will see the first lunar landing funded entirely by private sources and the first trip to the moon for Israel, joining the United States, Russia and China as the only moon-faring nations.
Measuring in at 1.5 meters (5 feet) wide, the washing machine-size lander will also be the smallest craft on the moon.
Beresheet was released by SpaceX's Falcon 9 at approximately 6:19 p.m PT, beginning its journey to the surface of the Moon. SpaceIL confirmed it had deployed its landing legs as expected at 6:45 p.m. Its lunar adventure will take a few months and involve a complex set of orbits around the Earth to pick up speed and then around the moon to prep for landing. The process is explained in more detail in this video:
On landing, Beresheet will send images, including a lunar selfie, back to Earth. This was one of the original requirements to win the Google Lunar XPrize. The other was to be able to travel a short distance on the surface. A SpaceIL spokesperson told me that Beresheet is unlikely to be able to hop across the surface of the Moon, but an attempt hasn't been completely ruled out.
SpaceIL is definitely planning to use Beresheet to carry out a scientific experiment to measure the magnetic field around it after landing and transmit the data back to Earth.
It'll also carry a time capsule, including digital files on specially designed discs made to last for eons. The capsule will remain on the moon and is meant to be a "backup" for humanity and includes a copy of all of Wikipedia and lots of other data.
"The interplanetary network of backup locations we have started may even help to enable an interplanetary Internet," explained Nova Spivack of the Arch Mission Foundation, which created the time capsule. "As we become a spacefaring civilization, we are going to need ways to move big data around the solar system, and protect it in transit, and at each location."
The name Beresheet means "In the beginning" in Hebrew. SpaceIL is hoping its mission will be just such a genesis for a golden age of Israeli involvement in space.
Chairman Morris Kahn described it as a gift to the people of Israel and "part of the Israeli ethos of technology, daring and a generous dose of nerve."
"Most importantly, it illustrates the loftier achievements that can still be achieved -- the know-how, the capabilities and the human capital are all here," added Nimrod Sheffer, CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), in a release.
SpaceIL has worked with IAI, one of Israel's largest aerospace contractors, to design and build the lander over the past several years. When the Google Lunar XPrize ended, the team went looking for donors and billionaires Kahn and Sheldon Adelson stepped in to contribute about two-thirds of the $100 million dollars (GBP 76.7 million, AUD 140 million) it took to fund the mission.
This is another of SpaceIL's goals beyond just getting to the moon: to prove that it can be done for a fraction of the massive billion dollar budgets superpower space agencies have used to get there.
One consequence of space travel on a budget is that Beresheet has few of the redundancies and backup systems found on spacecraft built by the likes of NASA. So if a key system fails, it's likely to torpedo the whole mission. A SpaceIL spokesperson told me the mission team is hopeful and confident but that there are no guarantees of success.
Such is the case with most space missions, but in the case of Beresheet, the journey is just as important as the destination. From the beginning, a stated goal for SpaceIL has been "to inspire the next generation in Israel and around the world to choose to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics."
In other words, this buildup to launch and then to landing are just as important as the mission succeeding, because the real goal is not to put a hunk of metal on the moon, but to attract more eyes and imagination to space in general.
Also, that extra copy of Wikipedia is sure to come in handy for settling bar bets at lunar frontier saloons in the coming decades.