JERUSALEM: Israel’s first spacecraft to the moon was expected to make its historic landing there Thursday and become the only private-sector craft to do so following a mission that has captivated the nation.
If it succeeds, Israel would become the fourth country to reach the moon but by far the smallest, with the United States, Russia and China the other three.
The landing was planned to occur at around 10:25pm.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh off his victory in Tuesday’s general election, was expected to watch from the control room in Yehud, near Tel Aviv.
The 585-kilogramme (1,290-pound) Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, is an unmanned spacecraft resembling a tall, oddly shaped table with round fuel tanks under the top.
The journey is 384,000 kilometres (239,000 miles), but Beresheet will travel a total of 6.5 million kilometres due to a series of orbits.
Its speed has reached 10 kilometres per second, (36,000 kilometres per hour).
NGO SpaceIL and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries launched Beresheet from Cape Canaveral in Florida on February 22 with a Falcon 9 rocket from Elon Musk’s private US-based SpaceX company.
For Israel, the landing itself is the main mission, but the spacecraft also carries a scientific instrument to measure the lunar magnetic field, which will help understanding of the moon’s formation.
The data will be shared with US space agency NASA.
It also carries a “time capsule” loaded with digital files containing a Bible, children’s drawings, Israeli songs, memories of a Holocaust survivor and the blue-and-white Israeli flag.
“While this is a great step for Israel, it is a huge step for Israeli technology,” Netanyahu said at the time of the launch.
The cost of the project is some US$100 million, with private philanthropists providing funding, particularly businessman Morris Kahn.
The project began as part of the Google Lunar XPrize, which in 2010 offered US$30 million in awards to encourage scientists and entrepreneurs to come up with relatively low-cost moon missions.
Although the Google prize expired in March without a winner having reached the moon, Israel’s team pledged to push forward.
The project includes other partners, among them the Swedish Space Corporation, whose ground satellite station network provided support.
NASA has made its Deep Space Network available to transmit data and has installed a small laser retroreflector aboard the lander to test its potential as a navigation tool.
Asked in December whether the project had so far gone as planned, SpaceIL co-founder Yariv Bash said “hell no”.
“Back when we got started, we thought it was going to be a two-year project, the budget would be less than US$10 million, and the spacecraft will weigh less than five kilogrammes,” he said.
“And here we are eight years later with a project with a budget of almost US$100 million.”
The Israeli mission comes amid renewed global interest in the moon, 50 years after American astronauts first walked on its surface.
China’s Chang’e-4 made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon on January 3, after a probe sent by Beijing made a lunar landing elsewhere in 2013.
US President Donald Trump’s administration announced in March it was speeding up plans to send American astronauts back to the moon, bringing forward the target date from 2028 to 2024.
India hopes to become the fifth lunar country in the spring with its Chandrayaan-2 mission. It aims to put a craft with a rover onto the moon’s surface to collect data.
Japan plans to send a small lunar lander, called SLIM, to study a volcanic area around 2020-2021.
The United States remains the only country to have walked on the moon, with 12 astronauts having taken part in six missions between 1969 and 1972.