Israelis sign contract to launch spacecraft to the moon

SpaceIL unveiled its lunar spacecraft prototype with great fanfare; it is the first of 16 competitors in the Lunar XPrize to be set for launch

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

An artist's rendering of Israel's SpaceIL lunar spacecraft. (Screen capture/Google Lunar XPRIZE)
An artist's rendering of Israel's SpaceIL lunar spacecraft. (Screen capture/Google Lunar XPRIZE)

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Science and Technology minister Ofir Akunis and other business and political leaders gathered on Wednesday at the President’s Residence before approximately 50 invited guests to hail what they described an enormous Israeli achievement.

This achievement, Akunis told the crowd, “constitutes a step forward for humanity and a giant leap forward for the State of Israel.”

What is this achievement? Israel has come one step closer to possibly doing well or even winning the Google Lunar XPrize, a $20 million prize that will be awarded to the first non-governmental team that puts a robot on the moon and sends photos and videos back to earth.

What Israel’s SpaceIL organization did was sign a contract with a company that provides a launcher to propel its small unmanned spacecraft to the moon.

The prototype is unveiled at the President's Residence
The prototype is unveiled at the President’s Residence (Courtesy)

The rules for the Lunar XPrize stipulate that teams entering the competition must put a rover on the moon, have it explore at least 500 meters and transmit a high-definition package of still images and video back to earth, all by the competition’s deadline of September 31, 2017.

Israel’s non-profit space organization SpaceIL has come closer to this goal than any of the other 15 teams in the competition. They signed a contract to use a launcher by aerospace manufacturer SpaceX to launch an unmanned spacecraft into lunar orbit — the first step a team must take toward landing on the moon and winning the $20 million grand prize.

“I am proud to officially confirm receipt and verification of SpaceIL’s launch contract, which positions them as first and only Google Lunar XPrize team to show this achievement so far,” said Bob Weiss, president of the XPrize Foundation, who came all the way from California to announce the milestone.

In his speech Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis described Israel as “a light unto the nation in morality, wisdom, humanity, science and innovation.” He mentioned Israel’s twelve Nobel laureates, saying “if we succeed this will be another success for Israeli entrepreneurship, Israeli science and the Israeli spirit.”

“With God’s help, we will win this contest.”

Eyes on the prize

The XPrize is a non-profit whose board of trustees includes Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, Larry Page and Arianna Huffington. Its stated mission is to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” by motivating people across the world to come up with technological solutions to problems that are not incentivized by the market.

The XPrize was inspired by the Orteig Prize, the 1919 offer of $25,000 by wealthy French hotelier to whoever could complete the first non-stop flight between New York City and Paris. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh won the prize with the Spirit of St. Louis. The original XPrize was offered in 1996 to a team that could build and fly a three‐passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. So far, there have been eight such competitions.

Chanda Gonzales, who runs the Google Lunar XPrize was also in Jerusalem for the festivities.

She says the purpose of the technology is not just for one or two teams to win the monetary prizes, but because a lot of teams are competing “you build a whole new space economy.” At present there are 16 remaining teams in the race, from the United States, Israel, Japan, Germany and Canada, among other countries. Anyone could have signed up before 2010, the final registration deadline, as long as 90 percent of the cash came from private industry and the team had no more than 10 percent government support.

Why is Google paying for this?

“Google and the XPrize Foundation are backing this because we care about the future of the world. We want to see breakthroughs in technologies.”

Kfir Namari is one of three Israeli engineers who found each other through Facebook and decided to join the Lunar XPrize competition in 2010. Their efforts evolved into SpaceIL, a non-profit space organization with over 30 employees.

“Why doesn’t the market just take care of space exploration?” The Times of Israel asked him.

“There’s no commercial market to land on the moon. That’s why we decided to incorporate as a non-profit. The spacecraft we built is cheap and simple. In the future there could be commercial applications, like quarrying in outer space or launching more satellites for applications beyond GPS. And there are other things we’ll discover on the moon, but we don’t know what they are yet.”

What did Israel’s space program actually accomplish?

According to an Curt Blake, Presdient of SpaceFlight Inc. SpaceIL approached his company about obtaining a launch that would be affordable for them.

The launcher that will launch the spacecraft into lunar orbit is called the Falcon 9, which is manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SpaceFlight acts as a kind of middleman, buying launchers from SpaceX and aggregating a bunch of smaller payloads together.

Curt Blake standing next to an actual-size artist rendition of the spacecraft (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Curt Blake standing next to an actual-size artist rendition of the spacecraft (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

In the case of SpaceIL, their craft will be launched with a number of satellites headed for low earth orbit. The spacecraft itself will go into high elliptical orbit and from there to the moon.

“We buy the rocket and we do the integration work of a stack of payloads deployed in a certain order,” said Blake.

Do you take just anyone?

“They have to have the money. And you can’t send something dangerous into orbit. Also, small payloads have to be able to come back to earth so they don’t clutter lower earth orbit.”

How much does it cost to use your launcher?

“”About $20,000 dollars a kilo.”

Unveiling the spacecraft

The highlight of the event was the unveiling of a prototype of the SpaceIL craft that is about half the size of the actual vehicle.

Morris Kahn (YouTube)
Morris Kahn (YouTube)

Morris Kahn, one of the project’s major donors, together with Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, points out that the spacecraft says “Am Israel Chai” on the side, “the nation of Israel lives.” This gesture is reminiscent of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon taking Jewish artifacts into space with him, including a miniature Torah and drawing by a Holocaust survivor.

What got you interested in this project?

“I’m interested in science and space. I’m a member of the Sea Space symposium,” said Morris Kahn an Israeli billionaire who reportedly spends most of his time on a 100-foot yacht. I thought it was important to do something to put Israel on the map and to educate youth and encourage them.”

What interests you about space? What mystery would you like to learn the answer to?

“How all of this started.”

AP contributed to this report.

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