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Israeli spacecraft poised to become first privately funded lander on the Moon


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Israeli spacecraft poised to become first privately funded lander on the Moon

It’s got a long journey to get there

 

IMG_9298_copy.0.jpg The SpaceIL team with the lunar lander.  Photo: SpaceIL

On Thursday evening, SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Falcon 9 rocket from Florida, but this time, the vehicle will be carrying a payload it’s never transported before: a spacecraft bound for the Moon. One of the three payloads on the rocket is an Israeli-made lander that will travel through space over the next two months and then try to land on the lunar surface. If the touchdown is a success, it’ll be the first time that a vehicle made with mostly private money has ever landed on the Moon or any other planetary body.

The lander is called Beresheet, the Hebrew word for “Genesis,” and it’s the creation of an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL. The company is a relic of the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize competition, an international contest created to send the first private lander to the Moon. While the contest ultimately ended without a winner, SpaceIL — a finalist in the competition — pressed onward with its mission, and now the company is ready to see its lander fly.

If Beresheet does reach the Moon, the lander’s lifetime will be short. It will last about two days on the surface, gathering imagery and transmitting those visuals back to Earth. It will also study the Moon’s magnetic field, using an onboard magnetometer. The spot that the lander is aiming for is called Mare Serenitatis, and this region is supposed to have some “magnetic anomalies” that SpaceIL hopes to analyze further. If everything works out, Beresheet will fire up its engines and “hop” to another spot, demonstrating that it can explore the Moon.

It’s not a particularly robust mission, but SpaceIL’s landing will be a significant one. If successful, it’ll be Israel’s first trip to the Moon, bringing the country’s flag to Earth’s satellite. And it’s also the first private mission to the lunar surface. This weekend, SpaceIL noted that it was “gifting” this mission to the nation of Israel, but most of the lander’s funding comes from private sources. The overall budget for the mission is $90 million, and only about $2 million of that came from the Israeli government, SpaceIL tells The Verge. Most of the budget was funded by an Israeli entrepreneur from South Africa named Morris Kahn and the Adelson Family Foundation, an LA charity that supports Israel. That means this lander is really a private entity. “We are pioneers,” SpaceIL said in an emailed statement to The Verge. “From the tiny country of Israel and with minimal budget, we intend to accomplish what only three superpowers have done before.”

 

SpaceIL_Israel_spacecraft_shippingcontai SpaceIL’s lander being prepped for launch.  Photo: SpaceIL

That distinction is important because, up until now, only governments have had the money and capability to pull off lunar landings. To date, just three nations have landed on the Moon: the United States, Russia, and China. Earlier this year, China became the first to land a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the lunar surface. And India hopes to join those ranks later this year, with its Chandrayaan-2 mission that will send an orbiter, lander, and rover to the Moon.

Private industry has also dreamed of going to the Moon. “It used to be that only superpowers had the ability to go and do things like land on the Moon, but lately there’s been so much flourishing of technology, which has been enhanced greatly by the computer revolution,” Phil Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida, tells The Verge. He notes that there are more commercial launch providers than ever, which has helped to bring down the costs of going to space. “Now it’s within the range where small groups of people can build a lunar lander, which is super amazing,” says Metzger.

In 2007, the X Prize Foundation started a competition sponsored by Google as a way to spur private groups to reach for the Moon. The contest challenged hopefuls to create landers, using mostly private funding, that could reach and explore the lunar surface. The goal was to help lower the cost of spaceflight and jump-start a potential industry revolving around the Moon. X Prize promised to give $20 million to the first group that reached the lunar surface before a certain deadline, and the second place team would receive $5 million. Special prizes would have also been given to groups that completed certain challenges, like visiting a site where one of NASA’s Apollo missions landed.

SpaceIL was one of five finalists in the Lunar X Prize competition. In 2015, it was the first to announce it had booked a ride for its lander on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets as a secondary payload, meaning the spacecraft would travel to orbit along with another satellite. It coordinated the launch through a broker called Spaceflight Industries, which finds rides for satellites that need to get to space. However, neither SpaceIL nor any of the other contestants were able to launch before the X Prize’s deadline: March 31st, 2018. (The deadline had moved many times before to accommodate the teams’ delays.)

Now, nearly a year after the X Prize ended without a winner, SpaceIL may informally win the contest. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is scheduled to fly on Thursday, February 19th, at 8:45PM ET. Once it launches, it will deploy the lander into a long, elliptical path around Earth. Over the next two months, each time it passes close by Earth, Beresheet will fire its engines, further elongating its orbit. Eventually, this path will get so stretched that it will take the lander by the Moon, where the spacecraft will try to get captured by lunar gravity. From there, the lander will circle the Moon three times before using its engines to take itself out of orbit and slowly lower itself to the ground.

SpaceIL’s craft is actually quite small. The four-legged vehicle is just 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) high and 2 meters (6 feet) wide. It weighs around 1,300 pounds, or 585 kilograms, with most of its mass made up of the fuel and engines needed to get to the Moon and then land. If it makes it to the ground in one piece, it’ll also be the lightest human-made object to touch down on the surface.

To track and communicate with this tiny vehicle, SpaceIL plans to use between five and seven tracking stations located all over the globe. NASA is also helping the team follow its lander on its journey. The space agency contributed a special laser reflector to the spacecraft that will help SpaceIL detect the vehicle in space and on the Moon. NASA is also giving the Israeli team some time with the agency’s Deep Space Network — an array of huge radio telescopes located across the globe that are used to communicate with deep space vehicles. NASA even plans to analyze the SpaceIL lander from lunar orbit with its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. In exchange, SpaceIL promises to share its magnetic field measurements with NASA.

 

GTO_1_SIL_Pictures_20190119_007_1024x756 SpaceIL’s lander mounted on the structure that will deploy it to space.  Photo: SpaceIL

Ultimately, SpaceIL hopes its mission will serve as a way to educate people all over the world about what it takes to get to the Moon. As for what comes next, SpaceIL doesn’t yet know. “The future of the nonprofit organization is yet to be decided,” says a spokesperson for the nonprofit.

However, SpaceIL isn’t the only private entity aiming for the Moon. There are other companies, including other former Google Lunar X Prize contestants, that see the Moon as a way to make money in the long run. Astrobotic, a US company based in Pittsburgh, is hoping to become something of a delivery service to the Moon by offering rides for researchers and organizations that want to send scientific instruments to the lunar surface. Others, like US-based Moon Express and ispace, are interested in mining the Moon’s resources, such as the water ice thought to permeate the lunar surface. This water could potentially be separated into its components — hydrogen and oxygen — which could then be used as rocket fuel for vehicles already in space. “There are a lot of capabilities that we can’t do now that we could do if we start utilizing the resources in space,” says Metzger.

Meanwhile, NASA is also focused on returning humans to the Moon, and the agency wants to do it with major help from commercial and international partners. NASA has already recruited nine companies to create and send small robotic landers to the Moon’s surface, and it just put out a call for companies to come up with designs for landers that can take humans to the surface of the Moon.

SpaceIL’s mission may just be a one-off event for the nonprofit, but if it’s successful — and that’s still a big “if” — the landing could be the first of many private lunar missions to come.

 

 

 

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