Daniel Saat, business development manager for SpaceIL, is reasonably confident that the lunar lander the Israeli spaceship organization is working on will beat out the competition and reach the moon, winning the big $30 million prize being offered by Google in its LunarX challenge. “Our intelligence sources tell us that Israel’s LunarX satellite is one of the two or three top contenders to win this contest,” Saat told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
And he’s also pretty certain the 140 kilogram spacecraft will actually land safely on the moon and perform the stunts Google requires to award the prize — move across the lunar surface, and beam back pictures of the event, instead of burn up in orbit over earth. “We’re 90% sure this is going to work,” said Saat. “Unfortunately it’s impossible to fully test the propulsion system on earth, because you can’t duplicate the conditions of space completely, and the amount of pollution released would be too high.”
What he is absolutely sure about, however, is that with SpaceIL, Israel has the makings of a new start-up growth area. “We expect a lot of intellectual property to flow from this, benefiting the economy in many ways,” said Saat. “Even that, however, is secondary to the inspiration a moonshot will produce among all Israelis, and especially among kids, whom we hope will be inspired to study science and engineering, two areas we need more kids to commit themselves to.”
SpaceIL’s mission, as the organization describes it, is to successfully build, launch into space, and land on the moon a space capsule, making Israel the fourth country in the world to achieve this. The capsule will constitute Israel’s entry into Google’s LunarX contest, which promises $30 million to the first team that can land an unmanned, robotic craft on the moon and carry out several missions — such as taking high-definition video and beaming it back to Earth, and exploring the surface of the moon by moving, or sending out a vehicle that will move, 500 meters along the moon’s surface.
In business for about two years, SpaceIL’s project is moving along at a healthy clip, said Saat, with just about all plans set in place. “We already have a prototype, and in the coming months we are going to start building the capsule itself,” he said. The target date for launch is the end of 2015 — which is the current Google deadline — though Google has moved the send-by date several times already, and if the deadline is extended, Space IL will also take some extra time to perfect the project.
At a press conference Sunday discussing the project, Yariv Bash, a co-founder of SpaceIL, said it sometimes seemed as if Google didn’t realize how challenging putting a spacecraft on the moon was for private organizations. “Many people say this is the hardest science contest ever,” Bash said. “Out of the 33 teams that have signed up for the contest since it was announced in 2007, 15 have already dropped out, and many of the others are likely to do so as well. At the end of the year we expect only ten teams to remain.”
Out of those, said Bash, Israel is a, if not the, top contender. “That’s what we hear, at least, from insiders at NASA who are on top of things.”
Rocket science, it turns out, is not for the light of pocket, said Saat. “Many of the teams dropped out because they couldn’t get the funding together, and that was because they were developing their craft based on a commercial model.” Teams in numerous countries, he said, tried to sign up corporate sponsors, but have been able to show a sufficient return on investment.
“Most of those projects are in the $50-$100 million range, and the prize is $30 million. The rest of the investment would have to be made up in intellectual property value, which is very difficult to show for values like $20 million and more,” Saat said. The best some teams have been able to do is come up with some commercial or advertising angle — like the team that is planning to send bottles of sports drinks up with its lander.
SpaceIL doesn’t have that problem, because it’s not trying to make money — and it’s not promising anyone that it will. “Everyone we’ve shown this to has been very supportive; not just backing us verbally, but with money as well,” said Bash. A long list of corporations — including Bezeq, Israel Aircraft Industries (where the actual spacecraft is being built and tested), Broadcom and Micron — along with government agencies like the Israel Space Administration, and universities and philanthropic groups from Israel and the US, have all donated to the cause. In addition, SpaceIL has raised millions from ordinary Israelis, who have given $18 or more to be a part of the cause. “Our goal is to raise $36 million in total, and so far we have raised about $21 million,” said Bash.
How is it that SpaceIL’s project is going to cost so much less than those $50-$100 million projects? It’s all in the design, said Bash. The craft “is only 140 kilos, about the size of a dishwasher,” Bash said, “and of that, most of the payload is fuel.”
The majority of the fuel will be required to enable the craft to make a soft landing on the moon, and position it so that it can “hop” the 500 meters Google requires. Most of the rest of the weight consists of cameras, and a small electronics box to enable “mission control” (located at IAI headquarters in Yehud) to manage the lander.
“We’re keeping the whole thing as light as possible in order to keep costs down,” said Bash. Part of those costs will be hitching the SpaceIL craft a ride on a rocket (most likely an American one) which will get the lander up into orbit, from where it can move to the moon’s field of gravity and be guided to the lunar surface. The lighter the payload, the lower the cost of the launch, explained Bash.
Over 250 volunteer engineers are working part-time on SpaceIL, making Israel’s staff the largest working on any country’s project. With all that brainpower, there’s no reason that SpaceIL’s project shouldn’t work — unless it doesn’t, Bash said wryly. “The truth is, the only way we are going to know if it is going to succeed is if it succeeds,” he said. “The last 15 minutes [of the journey through space] — when we try to land the craft on the moon — will be the most nail biting. And there’s no guarantee we will be ready before the other teams. According to Google’s rules, it’s a winner-take-all contest, with the first team to get its craft on the moon taking the whole prize.”
Bash firmly believes Israel is going to win — but he also insists that even if SpaceIL doesn’t get to the moon first, Israel is already a winner in this contest. “We are leveraging Israeli expertise in micro-satellite technologies, building the smallest, smartest spacecraft to ever land on the moon, and our system will be the first to rely on optic navigation, which uses the craft’s cameras to navigate in space. This way we don’t have to carry a bulky satellite to communicate and navigate.” Just those two accomplishments alone will be worth a great deal to companies developing other projects.
Saat stressed that if it wins, SpaceIL will use the prize money for future projects; companies developing intellectual property on behalf of the project will own their IP).
There have been, and will be, many more SpaceIL design innovations that will further benefit the economy, Bash said — to the extent that the new technology could open up space exploration to the masses. “We are showing the way in Israel and around the world for minimum-expense space exploration,” added Bash. “Imagine a corporation or university being able to put up its own exploration vehicle, sent to the moon or an outer planet. That will be feasible based on the technology we are developing.”
But the moonshot’s greatest accomplishment — and the real reason Bash, Saat, and all the other volunteers are giving their precious time for this — is to inspire a generation of Israelis. “In the early 1960s, when President Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, it inspired many young Americans to get into science and engineering, and arguably that explosion of technology education is the reason we have things like Internet and smartphones today,” said Bash, adding that much of miniaturization and communication technology we use today was first developed for the US space program.
“In the US, that was called the Apollo Effect,” said Bash. “We want to duplicate that here, with a SpaceIL effect. We send volunteers to schools all over the country, and we already see how excited kids are about this. We want the next generation in Israel and around the world to think differently about science, engineering, technology and math. When kids see the pictures of an Israeli lander on the moon, flying the Israeli flag and equipped with Israeli technology, we belief this will have a profound effect, influencing many kids to want to be a part of it. For us, that would be the greatest success of all.”