The first Israeli spacecraft planned to land on the Moon will be launched in December, the SpaceIL initiative behind the craft announced on Tuesday. The plan is for the spacecraft to land on the Moon on February 13, 2019, after a two-month trip.
The SpaceIL organization is participating in the Google Lunar XC Prize competition to land the first privately funded unmanned spacecraft on the Moon. Even though the competition officially ended with no winner at the end of March this year, after a number of extensions to the deadline for the $30 million in cash prizes, the competition still continues without the cash.
But SpaceIL continued to develop its spaceship, which it began to build in 2013 in cooperation with Israel Aeronautics Industries. The spacecraft will be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. The spacecraft will separate from its two-stage launch rocket at a height of 60,000 kilometers above the earth, where it will enter an elliptical orbit around the earth, which will expand slowly until the craft is captured by lunar gravity.
Ido Anteby, the CEO of the nonprofit SpaceIL, says this will be the smallest spacecraft ever to land on the Moon. It is about two meters in diameter and a meter and a half high. It will weigh 585 kilograms at launch, but will land with a weight of only 180 kilos after burning off most of its fuel.
SpaceIL is hoping to make Israel the fourth country in the world – after the United States, Russia and China, to land a spacecraft on the Moon. Beyond the technological and public relations achievement, the initiative is meant to arouse interest in space and science among Israelis, and especially the younger generation, and encourage them to study the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions.
The SpaceIL nonprofit was founded in 2010 by three young engineers – Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub – to participate in the competition sponsored by Google, which originally included a $20 million prize for the first group of contestants to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. SpaceIL grew over the years and has 50 staffers. Most of its employees are engineers, while a further 10 are involved in education.
The SpaceIL spacecraft has a scientific mission too: To decipher the magnetic mysteries of moon rocks. The research, conducted in cooperation with scientists form the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, will use a magnetometer on the spacecraft to attempt to understand how the rocks on the moon received their magnetism.
One of the goals of the project is to create an “Apollo Effect” in Israel, referring to the enthusiasm that began in the United States, and around the world, that encouraged scientific research after the first Apollo Moon landing in 1969, said billionaire businessman Morris Kahn, who provided the major part of the funding for SpaceIL, at Tuesday morning’s press conference.
SpaceIL has spent some 320 million shekels ($88.5 million) on the project, of which about 100 million shekels came from Kahn and most of the rest from private donors.
When Google kicked off the competition in 2010, one of the conditions was that the spacecraft lift off by 2014. But Google realized the deadlines it had set were overly ambitious, the launch date was repeatedly deferred. The final deadline was the end of March 2018.
Participants must be non-government entities (such as privately owned companies) that build and launch the craft into space, successfully land it on the moon, move it 500 meters along the lunar surface and get it to broadcast a video to Earth. Israel is contending against four other groups, from the U.S., Japan, India and an international group involving Brazil, Croatia, the U.S., India, Malaysia, the U.K. and Australia.
Among SpaceIL’s donors, aside from Kahn, are an Adelson family foundation, businessman Sami Sagol, the Israel Space Agency (which is part of the Ministry of Science) and the Weizmann Institute.
Although a privately-initiated nonprofit, SpaceIL could be seen as a national endeavor. It has 50 employees – as well as 200 volunteers talking about the project in schools throughout Israel.