Feb. 20 (UPI) -- The world's first private moon lander mission is scheduled to be carried into space by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Thursday.
The four-legged lander, which weighs just 440 pounds without fuel, was developed by SpaceIL, a privately funded nonprofit based in Israel. The team of scientists and engineers first formed in 2011 to compete for Google Lunar X-Prize.
When Google folded the contest and withdrew the prize money, SpaceIL pressed on, recruiting donors to fund its mission. Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle-based launch services and mission management group, helped connect SpaceIL with SpaceX.
Though SpaceIL is getting most of the attention, it's technically the third wheel. SpaceX's payload also includes PSN-6, an Indonesian telecommunications satellite, and an unnamed U.S. government satellite.
All three spacecraft will be released into a geostationary transfer orbit at an altitude of 37,000 miles. The lunar lander will use its small thrusters to take an increasingly elliptical orbit around Earth. After two months, the lander will be captured by the moon's gravity. The spacecraft will take two orbits around the moon before executing a soft landing.
Four sturdy struts will help the craft brace for the landing impact.
"Multiple tests have been performed to test and qualify the landing gears' ability to withstand the launch and the landing conditions," according to SpaceIL.
If the mission is successful, Israel will be the fourth country to put a spacecraft on the moon's surface, following the United States, Russia and, most recently, China.
Once on the moon, the lander will trek some 1,600 feet across the lunar surface, taking pictures to send back to Earth.
NASA and the Israel Space Agency agreed to aid the mission.
NASA provided the team with a laser retro-reflector array that engineers attached to the spacecraft. The array will allow other spacecraft to locate the lander after it touches down on the lunar surface. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will also attempt to document the spacecraft's descent and landing.
"Each lander that carries an LRA, we can build up a navigational system on the moon, providing more information to orbiting satellites and future landers, both robotic and human," Stephen Cole, a NASA spokesman, told the Planetary Society.
SpaceIL's spacecraft will attempt to land inside Mare Serenitatis, a large, dark lunar basin visible to the naked eye.
The mission's primary focus isn't one of scientific exploration. It is a proof-of-concept mission -- proof that small, privately funded spacecraft can visit other planetary bodies. It is also a national and educational mission.
"It has taken upon itself a national mission: to use the inspiring story of the spacecraft to create an educational impact among the next generation in Israel and around the world," according to SpaceIL.
The spacecraft will also carry a "time capsule" to memorialize the historic landing. The three discs will house Jewish prayer, Hebrew songs, the Israeli flag, the Bible, Israeli literature and paintings by Israeli schoolchildren -- all in digital form.
"This is a very emotional moment," Yonatan Winetraub, one SpaceIL's three founders, said in the statement. "It is very possible that future generations will find this information and want to learn more about this historic moment."