To go where no Israeli has gone before

Israeli whiz kids work on mini lunar lander as part of $20 million Google race.

By
December 22, 2010 02:02
3 minute read.
Satellite on the moon (illustrative).

israeli satellite_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Most people they meet raise an eyebrow or two after hearing their plan. But if you ask Yonatan Winetraub and Kfir Damari what they are doing these days, the answer is simple: “We are working on going to the moon.”

The two, in their 20s, are scientists: Winetraub works for Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) as a satellite engineer with a focus on nano-satellites, and Damari is a lecturer at the Israeli College of Management and is a communication-system engineer.

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Together, they have come up with one of the more daring Israeli initiatives in recent years: to build a space vehicle that can fly to the moon – and win $20 million while they’re at it.

Sound a little difficult? That’s because it is. The idea came to the two and their friend Yariv, who works for an unnamed government agency, a few months ago after Google kicked off the Lunar X competition.

The challenge, open to privately-funded space teams, is to become the first to successfully launch, land and guide their vehicle across the surface of the moon and send images back to Earth.

The first team to succeed – there are currently 20 contestants – will win $20m. The second team will take home $5m. Another $4m. is being set aside as bonus prizes for successfully completing other missions, such as operating at night, traveling more than 5 kilometers over the lunar surface, succeeding in detecting water or landing near an Apollo site. Another $4m. is being set aside as bonus prizes for successfully completing other missions, such as operating at night, traveling more than 5 kilometers over the lunar surface, succeeding in detecting water or landing near an Apollo site.

No Israeli team had registered until Winetraub, Damari and Yariv got together. Now they have eight days left to collect $100,000 to sign up for the competition. The deadline for the launch is the end of 2012.

According to Winetraub, the idea is to launch a 5-kg. satellite the size of a Coke bottle on an industrial satellite launcher, and then fly it to the moon’s surface, where it will take pictures and transmit them back to Earth.

The vehicle, which will consist mostly of a fuel tank and a tiny engine, will also carry an Israeli flag.

“Failure is not an option,” Winetraub said. “Our concept is simple, and we believe that we will succeed in becoming the third country in the world to put a flag on the moon.”

In the meantime, the two have met with aerospace industry leaders and government officials to present their idea and seek support, either financial or scientific.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Itzik Ben- Israel, head of the Israel Space Agency, said he was thinking of contributing to the program.

“These are talented people who have good intentions,” he said. “In the meantime, we are giving them moral support, and I am inclined to provide them with financial support as well.”

Lt.-Col. (res.) Danny Grossman, a former Israel Air Force pilot and aerospace expert, has also been enlisted for the project.

“America put a man on the moon and fired the imagination of a generation of Americans,” Grossman said, recalling his own youth before joining the air force. “This initiative will hopefully inspire a generation of Israelis and Jews around the world and project an image of deterrence.”

But what happens if they lose?

According to Damari, the team will likely go through with the launch.

“Even if we lose, nobody is going to get an Israeli flag on the moon before we do,” he said.


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