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Shooting for the Moon, engineers cheer successful launch of Beresheet

Liftoff happened exactly on schedule at 3:45 a.m. Israel time, prompting a raucous cheer from the cafeteria at Israel Aerospace Industries, where 500 employees and their families gathered to watch the launch of Israel’s historic lunar mission.

After the initial cheer, the room fell silent, engineers holding their breaths as the rocket escaped the earth’s atmosphere and reached an altitude of approximately 69,000 km (42,000 miles).

At 4:23 a.m., another cheer went up as the command center in Yehud, where Israel Aerospace Industries is headquartered, received the first data from Beresheet as the spacecraft prepared to separate from the rocket. At 4:25 a.m., Beresheet separated from the Falcon 9 rocket that launched it into space, successfully deploying its landing legs in the first test of its ability to function under its own power. The spacecraft will now travel about for seven weeks before reaching the moon on April 11.

“This launch for us, the people who worked on the development and building of the spacecraft, is like a birth after a long pregnancy,” said Ehud Hayan, a space systems engineer at Israel Aerospace Industries. “When the spacecraft leaves the rocket, that’s it. Once it’s in space, we can’t do any more tests or adjustments. It’s the first time it will be working alone, starting its functions. And once everything starts working, the motors are going and the pictures are streaming, you’ll feel as if there’s something alive.”

Hayan said the launch is usually one of the most stressful parts of a space operation, but because they have outsourced the launch to the commercial space company SpaceX, the Israeli engineers couldn’t do anything except sit back and watch the launch, hoping for the best.

“We had a successful launch, we were injected into a good orbit, separated well, and have good communications,” said Dr. Ofer Doron, the general manager of the Space Division at Israel Aerospace Industries, after Beresheet separated from Falcon 9.

There is a small problem with one of the star trackers, which helps the spacecraft orient itself using the position of the stars, but Doron said there are other ways that the spacecraft will be able to maneuver onto the correct path.

He noted that this is the first time that a deep space operation is totally funded by private donors. “Everyone is looking at us to see if it will work,” he said. “Now, Europe and the US are looking at this model, changing their strategy. Instead of being responsible for everything, they are looking for commercial options.”

For Liav Rotenberg, one of the spacecraft controllers, Friday’s launch was “a dream that’s finally being realized.”

“I can’t believe it, I remember back to my first days here,” said Rotenberg, who volunteered at IAI in high school and begged to be on the engineering team, despite his age. During the next 60 days, Rotenberg will take shifts in the command center in Yehud overseeing the spacecraft’s onboard engines. The engines make minute adjustments to the spacecraft’s trajectory, allowing it to make larger and larger elliptical orbits around the earth until it is pulled into the Moon’s orbits.

Beresheet will circle Earth six or seven times in a series of growing ellipses before jumping into the Moon’s orbit on April 4. The spacecraft will also circle the moon in a series of increasingly smaller ellipses, until it is expected to drop down into the Sea of Tranquility, on April 11 around 8 p.m., give or take an hour, according to SpaceIL CEO Dr. Ido Anteby.