A team of Israeli scientists is to launch what will be the first privately funded mission to land on the moon this week, sending a spacecraft to collect data from the lunar surface.
Named Beresheet, the Hebrew word for Genesis, the 585kg (1,290lb) robotic lander will blast off from Florida at 01.45 GMT on Friday, propelled by one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Once it touches down, in several weeks, it will measure the magnetic field of the moon to help understand how it formed.
Beresheet will also deposit a “time capsule” of digital files the size of coins containing the Bible, children’s drawings, Israel’s national anthem and blue and white flag, as well as memories of a Holocaust survivor.
“It’s going to be on the moon forever,” said Yonatan Weintraub, the co-founder of SpaceIL, the non-profit organisation leading the project.
“This is the lowest-budget spacecraft to ever undertake such a mission,” an IAI statement said of the £77m project. “The superpowers who managed to land a spacecraft on the moon have spent hundreds of millions.” It added that although it was a private venture, Beresheet was a “national and historic achievement”.
Crewed trips to the moon in the late 1960s and early 70s took around three days, but the probe will take a less direct route. It will first move in ever-growing elliptical orbits around the Earth until it intercepts the moon’s gravitational pull. Its creators have estimated it will land on 11 April.
SpaceIL was established in 2011 with the goal of winning the Google Lunar XPrize, which put up a $30m (£23m) reward for a privately funded team to land an automated spacecraft on the moon, “hop” 500 metres and transmit images back to Earth.
Although the contest closed without a winner, SpaceIL decided to continue and gather funds elsewhere. Morris Kahn, a South African-born Israeli billionaire, is the main backer but SpaceIL said US Republican party and pro-Israel funder Miriam Adelson and her casino-owning husband, Sheldon, gave $24m.
Russia was the first country to make a soft landing, rather than a plummeting crash, on the surface of the moon in 1966. But following the end of the space race in the 1970s, there was no return until China sent a lander in 2013. In January this year, Beijing made history by landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.
With Mars remaining a distant and challenging prospect, there has been a revival of interest in lunar visits. Later in 2019, two more moon missions are scheduled, one rover made by India and another Chinese lander.
The Trump administration has made human flight to the moon a top priority, while Nasa increasingly looks to private firms to help it reduce the cost. A US-led plan to build a small crewed space station orbiting the moon is under way, and Nasa has asked the commercial sector to bid to make the technology.