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SpaceX launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches Indonesia’s Nusantara Satu telecommunications satellite as well as the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander and an Air Force research satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent the Israeli-made Beresheet lunar lander on the first leg of its journey to the moon tonight, as a ride-along payload accompanying Indonesia’s Nusantara Satu telecommunications satellite and a U.S. Air Force experimental satellite.

The mission marks a milestone for SpaceIL, which funded and built Beresheet (Hebrew for “In the Beginning”), and also for Seattle-based Spaceflight, which handled the pre-launch logistics for SpaceIL.

If the lander successfully touches down on the lunar surface after its circuitous two-month trip, that will make Israel-based SpaceIL the first privately funded venture to put a payload on the moon. It will also make Israel the fourth nation with a spacecraft on the lunar surface — after Russia, the United States and China.

Tonight’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida also represents Spaceflight’s first effort to get payloads to geosynchronous transfer orbit and beyond. The Seattle launch services company has negotiated the launch of more than 200 satellites, but previous missions had gone no higher than low Earth orbit.

“This is an important mission for Spaceflight as we expand and evolve our customer offerings,” Spaceflight CEO Curt Blake said in a pre-launch news release. “The launches we pursue continue to get more sophisticated and demonstrate that our expertise goes beyond identifying and scheduling launches.”

The launch went off without a hitch at 8:45 p.m. ET (5:45 p.m. PT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s second stage and its payloads separated from the first-stage booster as planned and proceeded toward geosynchronous transfer orbit, or GTO.

Meanwhile, the first stage maneuvered itself to a landing on an oceangoing drone ship known as “Of Course I Still Love You,” positioned hundreds of miles off the Florida coast. SpaceX said the conditions ranked among the roughest ever encountered during a landing attempt. “Highest re-entry heating to date,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet.

This marked the third landing for the same booster, which was previously used last year to launch a set of Iridium NEXT satellites and Argentina’s SAOCOM 1A satellite.

Hundreds of SpaceX employees followed the webcast from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., cheering each success along the way.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was part of a different crowd watching the webcast at Israel Aerospace Industries. The Times of Israel quoted Netanyahu as saying SpaceIL’s lunar initiative is “a big step for Israel, and a big step for Israel’s technology.”

SpaceIL’s 1,322-pound Beresheet spacecraft was the first to be dropped off in high orbit, at an altitude of 37,000 miles. Over the weeks ahead, the dishwasher-sized lander will fire its own rocket engine to extend its orbit and enter the moon’s gravitational sphere of influence.

In April, Beresheet will touch down in a relatively flat area of the lunar surface, in Mare Serenitatis, to conduct its science mission. It’s carrying a high-resolution video camera system, a magnetometer to map the moon’s magnetic field and a CD-sized “time capsule” that contains digitized files of children’s drawings, photographs and information about Israeli culture.

SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization that was set up to pursue the now-expired Google Lunar X Prize. It’s working on the Beresheet mission in collaboration with state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, but the nearly $100 million in funding for the mission has come from Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other philanthropists.

The other two payloads will settle into stable geosynchronous Earth orbit, or GEO, 22,000 miles above our planet.

Nusantara Satu, also known as PSN-6, was built by Maxar Technologies’ SSL subsidiary for Pasifik Satelit Nusantara, a leading Asian provider of satellite-based telecommunication services. Indonesia’s first high-throughput satellite is expected to boost voice, data and video links throughout the Indonesian archipelago and PSN’s Asia-Pacific service area.

The third payload is the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s S5 experimental satellite. Built by Blue Canyon Technologies, S5 will carry out a one-year mission aimed at demonstrating small-satellite capabilities in GEO for the U.S. military.

More about Israel’s moon mission from the Planetary Society

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