CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - Israel's first spacecraft built to land on the moon was set for launch on Thursday from Florida on a mission that, if successful, would make the Jewish state only the fourth nation to achieve a controlled touchdown on the lunar surface.
The unmanned robotic lander dubbed Beresheet - Hebrew for the biblical phrase "in the beginning" - was due for liftoff at 8:45 p.m. EST (0145 GMT Friday) atop a Falcon 9 rocket launched by California-based entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX company from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
If all goes according to plan, Beresheet, about the size of a dishwasher, will arrive on the near-side of the moon in mid-April following a two-month journey through 4 million miles (6.5 million km) of space. A flight path directly from the Earth to the moon would cover roughly 240,000 miles (386,242 km).
Once launched, the spacecraft will enter a gradually widening Earth orbit that will eventually bring the probe within the moon's gravitational pull, setting the stage for a series of additional maneuvers leading to an automated touchdown.
Beresheet was one of three payloads to be carried aloft by the SpaceX rocket. The two others are a telecommunications satellite for Indonesia and an experimental satellite for the U.S. Air Force.
So far, only three other nations have carried out controlled "soft" landings on the moon - the United States, the former Soviet Union and China. Spacecraft from several countries, including India's Moon Impact Probe, Japan's SELENE orbiter and a European Space Agency orbital probe called SMART 1, have intentionally crashed on the lunar surface.
The U.S. Apollo program tallied six manned missions to the moon - the only ones yet achieved - between 1969 and 1972, with about a dozen more robotic landings combined by the United States and Soviets. China made history in January with its Chang'e 4, the first to touch down on the dark side of the moon.
Beresheet would mark the first non-government lunar landing. The 1,290-pound (585 kg) spacecraft was built by Israeli nonprofit space venture SpaceIL and state-owned defense contractor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) with $100 million furnished almost entirely by private donors.
SpaceIL officials have said they hope Beresheet will help inspire Israel's defense-focused space program to pursue more science-oriented missions.
Beresheet is designed to spend just two to three days using on-board instruments to photograph its landing site and measure the moon's magnetic field. Data will be relayed via the U.S. space agency NASA's Deep Space Network to SpaceIL's Israel-based ground station Yehud.
A series of future moon landings has already been jointly planned by IAI and German's OHB System on behalf of the European Space Agency.