In first, Israeli spacecraft set for trip to the moon

  • TOIIsraeltotheMoon2
Save the date. On 13 February 2019, an Israeli-built unmanned spacecraft is expected to land on the moon, having blasted off from Earth two months earlier, project managers said at a news conference on Tuesday.

If all goes well, the SpaceIL spider-like craft will give Israel entry into the exclusive club of just three nations which have so far achieved a controlled landing on the moon’s surface.

The probe will be launched sometime in December from Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, officials said during the media event, held at an Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) space technology site in Yehud. It is scheduled to land on 13 February 2019.

The project, begun seven years ago as part of a Google technology contest to land a small probe on the moon, was conducted together with IAI.

“We will put the Israeli flag on the moon,” said Ido Anteby, the CEO of SpaceIL, a non-profit organisation dedicated to landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon.

“As soon as the spacecraft reaches the landing point, it will be completely autonomous,” Anteby said. “The motor will brake the craft, and it will reach the ground at zero speed for a soft landing.

“In the first stage, the Israeli flag will be put on the moon. During the landing, the craft will photograph the landing area with stills and video, and will even record itself.”

The spacecraft will carry out a Weizmann Institute of Science experiment to measure the moon’s magnetic field, finishing its mission within two days.

SpaceIL’s vehicle is just 2m in diameter and 1.5m tall standing on its four legs. It weighs 600kg, making it the smallest craft to touchdown on the moon.

Israeli billionaire philanthropist and SpaceIL president Morris Kahn, who donated $27 million (R361 million) to the project, told a gathering of journalists: “We are making history.”

The idea, he said, is to inspire youth in Israel to take up science studies and to have the same impact that the Apollo lunar mission had in 1969, when astronauts landed on the moon, with people remembering forever where they were on that day.

“This is a tremendous project,” Kahn said. “When the rocket is launched into space, we will all remember where we were when Israel landed on the moon.”

The Israeli government has promised to fund 10% of the project, he said, but the money still has to come. “The government should recognise that space is very important for the future,” he said.

“This is national history,” said IAI director Yossi Weiss. “The path to the moon is not easy. It is a very complicated route.

“The co-operation between SpaceIL and IAI is an example of the amazing abilities that can be reached in civil space activities – activities that combine education, technology, industry, knowledge and a lot of initiative.”

Whereas other previous moonshot spacecraft have taken just days to reach their target, SpaceIL will be fired into an elliptical orbit to gradually bring it closer to the moon, a journey that will take two months but will save on carrying the fuel needed for a quicker passage.

Even so, the craft will travel at a speed that is 13 times faster than the maximum speed of an F-15 fighter jet, steering itself to the moon, which is 384 000km from Earth – about 10 times the distance between Earth and communication satellites orbiting it. Through its elliptical journey, the Israeli spacecraft will cover nine million kilometres, the project managers said.

The Falcon 9 launch rocket’s primary load will be a much larger communications satellite.

The craft itself – the same one that will land on the moon – was displayed in a so-called “clean room” on site. Journalists and visitors had to don white robes and hats and cover their shoes before accessing the space. Shiny gold insulating paper covered its spider-like legs. The gold paper will cover the whole of the craft once it is finally ready, the creators said.

The spacecraft’s design and development is all Israeli, the organisers explained.

The fuel is contained in balloon-like devices within the lightweight metal frame of the craft, with one engine at its centre and smaller engines on the side. The craft is equipped with solar panels, avionics, electronics and a control system – all of which were developed in Israel. It is also equipped with cameras and communication equipment so it can continuously be in touch with its operators on Earth.

The project is making “the moon reachable, which it never was before”, said IAI’s Weiss at the event. “Going to the moon was a hugely expensive government-run mission. And this is going to be the first privately run mission to the moon.”

This is the first time an enterprise, not a country, has gone to the moon at a reasonable cost, and it is “going to show the way for the rest of the world on how space is much more than just satellites”.

Humanity is looking for ways to make it easier to get to the moon and other planets, he said, and this mission paves the way for that.

In the coming months, the spacecraft will undergo a series of intensive checks and tests at IAI, including with the use of simulators, to prove that it will withstand the launch, flight and landing conditions, said SpaceIL’s Anteby at the event. In November, the spacecraft will be sent to Cape Canaveral to ready it for the launch in December.

SpaceIL began in 2011 when engineers Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub decided to compete in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, an international contest with a $20 million (R268 million) prize for the first privately funded team that puts a small, mobile craft on the moon.

Although the Google contest was eventually scrapped in March 2018 after none of the teams managed to launch their probes before the deadline, the SpaceIL group kept going with its project, gaining funding from various donors, including Kahn and the Adelson family.

In total, the project has cost $95 million (R1.3 billion).

Only three countries have made soft landings of craft on the moon: Russia, the US and China. The Russians were first in February 1966 with their Luna 9 probe, followed by the US in June 1966 with Surveyor 1, and then the Chinese with the Chang’e 3 craft in 2013. Other countries have succeeded in crashing scientific probes into the surface.

Only the US has landed people on the moon, with the first human steps on the surface taken by Neil Armstrong on 21 July 1969, when he famously declared: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


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