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SpaceX rocket launched carrying Israel's first lunar lander

[CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida] A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida on Thursday night carrying Israel's first lunar lander on a mission that if successful will make the Jewish state only the fourth nation to ever to achieve a controlled touchdown on the moon's surface.

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 8.45pm EST (0145 GMT Friday) atop the 23-story-tall rocket.

Beresheet, about the size of a dishwashing machine, was one of three payloads carried aloft by the Falcon 9, part of the private rocket fleet of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's California-based company SpaceX.

The two other payloads set for deployment are a telecommunications satellite for Indonesia and an experimental satellite for the US Air Force.

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Beresheet was due to be released into Earth orbit about 34 minutes after launch, followed 15 minutes later by deployment of the two satellites.

Just a few minutes after blastoff, the Falcon 9's nine-engine suborbital main stage booster separated from the upper stage, flew back to Earth and landed safely on a drone ship floating in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast.

If all goes according to plan for Beresheet, the lander will arrive on the near-side of the moon in mid-April following a two-month journey through 6.5 million km of space. A flight path directly from the Earth to the moon would cover roughly 386,242km. Once deployed, 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.

REUTERS