Israel might be heading for the moon

SpaceIL hits milestone, rockets ahead of competition in Google race.

By
October 8, 2015 00:55
3 minute read.
israel moon

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN points to a model of the Israeli spacecraft being entered by the country’s SpaceIL team in a race to the moon sponsored by Google. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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In what may be a giant leap for the Jewish state, Israel’s SpaceIL became the first team competing in Google’s international moon-landing competition to secure a launch contract, ensuring a place for SpaceIL’s satellite on the US outer space corporation’s SpaceX rocket, due to blast off in 2017.

At the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday, SpaceIL, the Israeli team of scientists, engineers, academics, and businessmen competing for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize, unveiled a prototype of the spacecraft it developed.

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“We are proud to officially confirm receipt and verification of SpaceIL’s launch contract, positioning them as the first and only Google Lunar XPRIZE team to demonstrate this important achievement thus far,” said Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPRIZE. “The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately funded organization, and kicks off an exciting phase of the competition, in which the other 15 teams now have until the end of 2016 to produce their own verified launch contracts. It gives all of us at XPRIZE and Google the great pride to say, ‘the new space race is on!’” Although 33 teams entered the competition, less than half of them remain in the race, and Israel is the only one to have secured a validated launch contract – the official notification of the intent to launch, Weiss explained. Other teams may make announcements, but not through the official notification and validation process.

Winning the contest requires a privately funded team to be ready before the end of 2017 to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon’s surface that can explore at least 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. The key private funding sources for this project were the Kahn Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation and the Adelson Foundation.

Israel still has to fine-tune some details on the launcher and roller to make the journey successful, and it all has to be integrated with the parent rocket, but Weiss, based on the fact the X Prize administration has vetted every detail many times along the way, is confident that SpaceIL will succeed in achieving the task. It will send its craft into space using a SpaceX Falcon 9 Launcher from the Spaceflight Industries launch site in Texas.

According to Weiss, this is the largest prize for a competition of its kind. The grand prize is $20 million, and there are two second prizes of $5 million each, one for the survival of a lunar night and the other for visiting an Apollo landing site.

The fact that SpaceIL has scored such an important achievement kicks off an exciting phase of the competition, and it now remains for the 15 other remaining teams to prove that they can do the same, said Weiss.

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Rivlin said that he was very excited, even though he did not fully understand what the people who had developed the spacecraft were doing. He praised the team for representing the best of Israel’s visionaries, and said that theirs was a wonderful cooperative effort.

But no project of this kind can be discussed without mention of Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon who died so tragically, said Rivlin.

Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis recalled that Soviet Russia had pioneered space travel in September 1959, followed by the United States, Japan, China and India. “Soon Israel, a small but great country, will join them” he said. Directly addressing members of the team, Akunis said “the prize is less important than the challenge – and you met it. This is yet another triumph of the Israeli spirit. This is another step for humanity and a giant stride for Israel.”

SpaceIL founder Yariv Bash, who began the endeavor with two partners was appreciative of all those who joined in the effort “because they believed in us and our motivation.” The project is an inspiring one, he said, and “we are not waiting to land on the moon before we implement the educational aspect of what we are doing.”

He intends to go to classrooms across the country to scout future scientists and engineers. “If I can find one talented student in every classroom, it will be a great thing for Israel.”

In itself, the craft that was unveiled looks like a glorified Lego construction.

“It took us eight years to reach this point,” said SpaceIL CEO Dr. Eran Privman.

Niv Elis contributed to this report.

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