Israeli Nonprofit to Conduct First-Ever Private Moon Landing

October 15, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Photo credit: SpaceIL/Youtube

The first Israeli mission to soft-land a spacecraft on the Moon could happen as soon as 2017, thanks to private funding through SpaceX.

The first private mission to the Moon could come from a collaboration between SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceIL announced its plan to use the Falcon 9 rocket to launch its own lunar lander into space sometime in the second half of 2017. If everything goes according to plan, it will be the first Israeli mission to soft-land a vehicle on the Moon.

SpaceIL is just one of 16 teams from various countries competing to win the Google’s $30 Million Lunar XPRIZE —  a foundation aiming to inspire and sponsor efforts to benefit humanity. The Lunar XPRIZE challenges the 16 teams to design soft-landing lunar robots that will make spaceflight more economically feasible.

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Many countries have crashed orbiters or probes into the Moon, but only the United States, Russia, and China have managed to land an intact spacecraft. It’s a delicate balance to master, as the Moon is too small to have a gravitational pull that can be exploited, yet it also lacks an atmosphere that can cushion an incoming object. So far, the best method involves firing backwards rockets from a spacecraft in lunar orbit, allowing it to gently descend.

But the Lunar XPRIZE competition will hopefully yield an easier and less expensive strategy. Teams have until December 31st, 2017 to touch down on the Moon, after which their lander must explore up to 500 meters of the surface while sending back video and images. The first team to succeed before 2018 will win $20 million, while the second team will win $5 million, and the rest of the prize will be divided into bonuses for technical achievements. The grand prize also stipulates that 90 percent of the team’s funding come from private sources.

SpaceIL is the first team to sign a launch agreement, giving it a leg up on the rest of the competition. The Israeli team bought a ticket on the Falcon 9 launch through Spaceflight Industries, which helps find room for technologies on upcoming launches by sharing hardware among organizations and government entities. While the ticket cost SpaceIL about $10 million, purchasing a full rocket launch would have cost ten times that amount.

SpaceIL’s lander, called Sparrow for now, will get its own capsule among other payloads on the Falcon 9 rocket. It also gets the longest ride, as the rocket will deploy all other spacecraft when it reaches lower Earth orbit before releasing Sparrow as close to the Moon as possible. Sparrow will then detach and propel itself the rest of the way. To avoid a catastrophic collision, Sparrow will hop across the surface, taking off and landing again about 500 meters away.

SpaceIL has yet to finalize designs for Sparrow, let alone build the lander. But the team is still miles ahead of the other teams competing for the prize, who now have until the end of 2016 to sign their own launch contracts. SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman announced, “This takes us one huge step closer to realize our vision of recreating an Apollo Effect’ in Israel: to inspire a new generation to pursue Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math.”

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