Israel's prior experience in space has been tinged with tragedy: The country's first astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and an Israeli-made satellite that was set to go into orbit in 2016 aboard a SpaceX rocket blew up during a failed launch test.
The unmanned robotic lander dubbed Beresheet - Hebrew for the biblical phrase "in the beginning" - soared into space from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at about 8:45 p.m. EST (0145 GMT Friday) atop the 23-story-tall rocket.
The craft was developed by Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL as well as the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.
If successful, the explorer, called Beresheet, should arrive on the moon in April after a two-month journey through space.
After launching from Cape Canaveral, the spacecraft will make several lunar orbits before attempting a soft landing on the moon's surface.
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But if it is successful, it will be the first-ever privately funded probe to land on the moon. The unmanned Genesis spacecraft ("Beresheet" in Hebrew), built by a private non-profit group - SpaceIL in cooperation with Israel Aeronautics Industries, had a lovely launch tonight at 8:45 p.m. "We'll keep analysing the data, but bottom line is we entered the very exclusive group of countries that have launched a spacecraft to the moon", added Yigal Harel, head of SpaceIL's spacecraft program.
Are more such missions in the works?
As CNN noted, the first hard landing on the moon came in 1959, when Russian Federation launched Luna 2, which crashed onto the moon; the US followed with Ranger 4 in 1962. The company continued to develop the lander that's now en route to the moon.
Shortly before the main PSN-6 satellite was deployed from Falcon 9's upper stage, one of SpaceX's launch network operators verbally confirmed that SpaceIL's Beresheet lander had established communications with the ground and successfully deployed its landing legs in orbit, one tangible step closer to the first attempted commercial Moon landing. However, the competition was canceled in January 2018 when it became clear that none of the contestants would reach the moon by the specified deadline. The spacecraft also has a scientific mission: to measure the moon's magnetic field as part of an experiment carried out in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute. After all, the Apollo missions flew directly to the moon, landing less than a week after launch.
Other partners are IAI, Israel's space agency its Ministry of Science and Technology. The contest closed without a victor, but SpaceIL chose to continue and get funding from elsewhere.