Israel set to launch historic Moon landing mission

Israel is set to embark on a historic mission to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.

The unmanned Beresheet spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this week. Beresheet, which is the Hebrew word for “beginning,” is expected to expected to reach the Moon on April 11.

Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries told reporters on Monday that the launch is scheduled for 8:45 p.m. ET on Thursday. The launch had been originally slated for last December.

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The spacecraft will take Israel into a select group of nations. Only three countries – the U.S., the Soviet Union and China – have made successful ‘soft landings’ on the lunar surface. An Indian impact probe was intentionally crashed into the Moon in 2008. The following year, Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft was directed to crash into the lunar surface.

A rendering of Beresheet conducting its scientific mission to measure the Moon's magnetic field.

A rendering of Beresheet conducting its scientific mission to measure the Moon's magnetic field. (SpaceIL)

Beresheet also will be the first private mission to reach Earth’s natural satellite.

The spacecraft was born out of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition to land an unmanned probe on the moon. The $30 million competition was scrapped with no winner last year after the organizers said none of the five finalists would make the March 31, 2018 deadline for a Moon launch, Space.com reported.

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Nonetheless, the Israeli team pressed on with the development of its 397-pound spacecraft and this week’s launch from SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) is generating plenty of interest.

After its two-month journey, the probe will land within Mare Serenitatis in the Moon’s northern hemisphere. SpaceIL notes that the site has magnetic anomalies, enabling Beresheet’s magnetometer device to take measurements as part of a scientific experiment. Data from the magnetometer, which was developed with Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, will be shared with NASA.

In addition to its science mission, Beresheet will also take a time capsule to the Moon. Consisting of three disks, the time capsule data includes symbols such as the Israeli flag and the country’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” Dictionaries in 27 languages are also included on the disks, along with the Bible and a children’s book inspired by the mission.

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Beresheet and its time capsule will remain on the lunar surface indefinitely.

(From left) IAI Space Division General Manager Opher Doron; SpaceIL President Morris Kahn; and SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby.

(From left) IAI Space Division General Manager Opher Doron; SpaceIL President Morris Kahn; and SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby. (Photo credit: Tomer Levi)

“The upcoming launch in Cape Canaveral, and the lunar landing about two months later, will be the culmination of eight years of hard work and dedication,” said SpaceIL president Morris Kahn, in a statement. “This mission is a source of inspiration for people around the world, and we are looking forward to making history and watching as the Israeli flag joins superpowers Russia, China and the United States on [the] moon.”

China became the first country to successfully land a probe on the far side of the Moon when the Chang’e 4 lander reached the lunar surface on Jan. 2.

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The U.S. is the only country to place astronauts on the Moon, having done so most recently in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission. Only 12 men, all Americans, have set foot on the Moon.

The Beresheet spacecraft, inside a temperature-controlled shipping container, was loaded into a cargo plane at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport and then flown to Florida.

The Beresheet spacecraft, inside a temperature-controlled shipping container, was loaded into a cargo plane at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport and then flown to Florida. (Photo credit: Eliran Avital)

July 20, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing and lunar missions continue to be a source of fascination.

A checklist that traveled to the surface of the Moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin recently sold at auction in New York for $62,500. In the same auction, three tiny Moon rocks brought back from space by the unmanned Soviet Luna-16 mission were sold for $855,000.

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Dec. 21, 2018 also marked the 50th anniversary of the momentous Apollo 8 launch. During a series of historic lunar orbits, NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders became the first humans to see the far side of the Moon.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers