Israel may not have Apollo, but its space industry is hoping to take a giant leap for mankind in 2015 to become the third country in history to land on the moon, this time in a tiny unmanned spacecraft equipped with high definition technology capable of broadcasting images back to Earth.
The initiative is the brainchild of SpaceIL, a non-profit organization founded by three young Israeli engineers who embarked on Google’s international Lunar X project about two years ago. Google has promised $20 million to the first team that successfully lands on the moon, travels at least 500 meters on the lunar surface, and brings back HD video, images and data. As a further incentive for the competing teams, the prize will drop to $15 million if a government funded project beats them to it - a goal which China hopes to achieve this year.
But for founders Yariv Bash, 31, Kfir Damari, 30, and Yonatan Weintraub, 26, and their staff of dedicated engineers and volunteers, the project is not about the money. Above all else, they say, SpaceIL is a "national project" aimed at advancing Israel’s scientific and technological fields, and inspiring the next generation. They have committed to putting all of their prize money, should they win, into science and scientific education in Israel.
“We want these things to be happening in 20 years, when we retire,” said Eyal Sagi, the chief systems engineer for the project. “If we can show [the youth] that there is a future in this work, that will have been our greatest achievement.”
The project has attracted some 200 volunteers, many of them high school and university students, and the staff comprises predominantly young engineers, technicians, and space enthusiasts. Adam Green, a 24-year-old graduate of aerospace engineering from the United Kingdom, came to Israel specifically for this project and has since become a major part of the ground control team that will monitor the moon flight as it happens.
Amit Levin, a 15-year-old who learned about the project when SpaceIL visited his extracurricular physics class at Tel Aviv University, is a volunteer on a team tasked with another major goal - identifying a proper landing spot on the moon.
“Can you imagine, someone comes into your classroom and asks if you want to work on a satellite to the moon?” said Levin. “It was like the messiah had arrived.”
The Google prize money would not even cover the estimated cost of the SpaceIL project, which stands at some $30 million - a sum the organization has not quite reached. Including pledged donations, it has secured about $20 million dollars so far from private donors and institutions.
“We believe we can complete the building of the spaceship by 2015, but the major challenge is finding the appropriate launch [site]. This is critical for the project,” said Yanki Margalit, chairman of SpaceIL. “If we want to achieve the mission, we don’t just need to build the spaceship. We need to secure a launch. This is a financial thing.”
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While there is no official ranking among the competitors, the group believes it is in the top three. Margalit told Haaretz that NASA’s Pete Worden has already pegged the Israeli team as most likely to achieve the mission on time.
Funding for SpaceIL comes from, among others, South African-born businessman Morris Kahn, who approached the team at the beginning of the venture, and asked if they had the money for the project. He gave them a seed of $100,000 and has since contributed hundreds of thousands more, recently pledging another $2.5 million to finance about half of the actual launch, provided the sum is matched by another donor.
The project is also backed by the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Weizmann Institute, the Technion, Tel Aviv University, the Rafael – Israel Armament Development Authority, Elbit and Gilat. Bezeq partnered up in early February and has taken on the responsibility of transmitting broadcasts arriving from the spacecraft to the satellite station to the control center - a distance of 384,000 kilometers.
SpaceIL is still seeking donations from philanthropists, cloud funding, and hopes to secure other commercial sponsorships like the one it now has with Bezeq.
The Israeli team, along with the other competitors, is working closely with NASA to prepare for the launch.
“We provide technical information and advice as requested within the limits of ITAR and other legal restrictions,” said Pete Worden, Director of NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC) at Moffett Field, Calif. “In some cases, when more extensive help is requested we can provide information, facilities and testing support on a reimbursable basis through what is called a space act agreement.”
So how will the moon flight actually work?
The first Israeli spacecraft to the moon is tiny, expected to weigh less than 140 kg with a diameter of just 72 x 72 x 96 cm. More than 70 percent of the craft’s weight will come from four tanks carrying 90 kg of fuel.
The trip itself is 384,000 km long and will take about two months total. In stage one, the spacecraft is expected to settle into orbit within a month, about 100 km from the moon; in stage two, the spacecraft will make its descent from 100 km above themoon’s surface, to a height of 15 km; at this point, the final two stages will begin: landing on the moon and exploring its surface.
After it has "hitchhiked" on a foreign space company's satellite for the actual launch into orbit, the spacecraft will land on the moon at sunrise, using special “eyes” designed by the Weizmann Institute, and remain there for two days before making the “jump” 220 meters above the lunar surface to travel the 500 meters required for exploration.
SpaceIL still has two years to build the actual spaceship, secure funding and a launch partner, and prepare for the journey. SpaceIL recently concluded its Preliminary Design Review, which is essentially the how-to manual for building the final spacecraft.
“It’s not just a vision anymore, or a dream anymore, it’s a several thousand page book that tells us how to do it,” said Margalit.