SpaceX to launch rocket carrying privately funded Israeli moon lander

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

SpaceX readied a Falcon 9 rocket for launch from Florida on Thursday, preparing for a dramatic mission. The launch will boost an Indonesian communications satellite into orbit and, along with it, a privately funded Israeli moon lander that will attempt a touch down in April.

If successful, the $100 million mission will put Israel in an exclusive club, joining the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia and China as only the fourth nation in space history to pull off a powered landing on the moon.

"This is going to be the first private interplanetary mission that's going to go to the moon. This is a big milestone," said Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL, the non-profit promoting the mission to boost STEM education initiatives across Israel.

"This is going to be the first time that it's not going to be a superpower that's going to go to the moon. This is a huge step for Israel."

Wrapped in gold-colored foil insulation, SpaceIL's Beresheet moon lander sits perched atop an Indonesian communications satellite known as Nusantara Satu in preparation for encapsulating the payload in a protective fairing in preparation for launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SSL

SpaceX test-fired the Falcon 9's first stage engines Monday night, clearing the way for liftoff from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:45 p.m. ET Thursday. Forecasters predicted an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather.

This will be SpaceX's second mission this year and it's first from Cape Canaveral since December. It will also be the company's 68th Falcon 9 launch overall and its 69th counting the maiden flight of a three-core Falcon Heavy last February.

As usual, SpaceX plans to attempt recovery of the rocket's twice-flown first stage with a planned landing on an off-shore droneship, the "Of Course I Still Love You." Going into the flight, SpaceX's landing record stood at 33 successful recoveries — 21 on droneships and 12 on land.

While the Israeli Beresheet — "Genesis" — moon lander has sparked widespread interest in the mission, the primary goal of the flight is to boost a powerful Indonesian communications satellite into orbit for PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara. Known as Nusantara Satu, the relay station will provide a broad range of telecommunications services across the Indonesian archipelago.

The spacecraft also will carry a small U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory satellite known as S5 to its operational orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. Once flying on its own, the experimental satellite will monitor the environment at that altitude where scores of communications stations are stationed. The goal is to improve "space situational awareness."

But the clear star of the show is the Beresheet moon lander.

Designed by SpaceIL and built by Israel Aerospace Industries for the since-canceled Google Lunar X-prize competition, Beresheet is the first Israeli spacecraft designed to visit the moon or any other world. The goal is to spur interest in STEM careers among students in Israel.

"Israel is a very small country, as small as New Jersey, and we're shooting for the moon," said Yigal Harel, SpaceIL manager of Beresheet program. "It's the first time a small country has aimed to reach the moon and land safely. We are the first non-governmental mission to the moon, and we're the first ever moon mission to use a commercial launch."

The Falcon 9 launch for Beresheet and the Air Force S5 satellite was arranged by Seattle-based Spaceflight, a company that has pioneered "rideshare" launch opportunities for small satellites that do not require a dedicated rocket. For Wednesday's launch, Spaceflight negotiated rideshares through SSL (formerly Space Systems/Loral), builder of the PSN 6 satellite.

If all goes well, Beresheet will be released 33 minutes after launch into a highly elliptical orbit, with a high point, or apogee, of about 37,000 miles. That's the "transfer" orbit required by PSN 6, which will use on-board thrusters to reach its operational 22,300-mile-high circular orbit above Indonesia.

022119-beresheet1.jpg
An artist's impression of the Beresheet moon lander. SpaceIL

Beresheet, meanwhile, will use its thrusters, repeatedly firing at the low point of the ellipse, to raise the apogee step by step until the spacecraft intercepts the moon's orbit and is captured by lunar gravity on April 4.

Landing on the moon's Mare Serenitatis is targeted for April 11. During the final descent to the surface, a magnetometer will measure the local magnetic field before the main engine shuts down at an altitude of about 16 feet. From there, the spacecraft will free fall to the surface.

Beresheet is equipped with a high-resolution camera to capture panoramic views of the landing site to help scientists better understand the area. The spacecraft also carries a small "time capsule" loaded with cultural artifacts, including a copy of the Bible engraved on a coin-size disk.

"We have a vision to show off Israel's best qualities to the entire world," said Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli businessman and philanthropist who contributed to the SpaceIL project and is an enthusiastic, if unofficial, "ambassador."

Payloads aside, the Falcon 9 launching is of vital importance to NASA, helping clear the way for the March 2 launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon astronaut ferry ship on an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station. NASA plans to hold a flight readiness review Friday.

022119-beresheet2.jpg
The Beresheet lunar lander will be released into an elliptical orbit with a high point of about 37,000 miles. The spacecraft will use its on-board propulsion system to raise the high point of the orbit until it intercepts the moon on April 4. Landing is targeted for April 11. SpaceIL

First published on February 21, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

William Harwood

Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."

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