SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organization, announced on Tuesday that its unmanned probe will lift off before the end of 2018 and land on the moon on February 13. If successful, this will make Israel the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface and, in typical Israeli style, give the world its first ever lunar selfie.
“We will put the Israeli flag on the moon,” said Ido Anteby, CEO of SpaceIL at the press conference announcing the launch date. “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,” he said. “During the landing the craft will photograph the landing area with stills and video and even record itself.”
In addition to the selfies, the spacecraft will spend two days carrying out an experiment for the Weizmann Institute of Science, using a magnetometer to measure the moon’s magnetic field to help understand how the moon’s rocks received their magnetism.
Several countries have succeeded in crashing scientific probes into the lunar surface but only three, the United States, Russia, and China, have made soft landings on the moon. Of those, only the US has landed a manned spacecraft on the moon.
SpaceIL’s spacecraft will be the first privately funded effort to land on the moon and the smallest ever to land on the Moon. It is about 6.5 feet in diameter and about five feet high. It will weigh 1,290 pounds at launch, but, after burning off most of its fuel before landing, it will weigh less than 400 pounds.
SpaceIL will be sending the probe into space from the US space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket owned and operated by SpaceX, a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company owned by entrepreneur Elon Musk. The Falcon 9’s primary load on that trip will be a much a larger communications satellite.
In typically Israeli style, the trip to the moon will take substantially longer than expected. Normally, a spacecraft takes 4-5 days to make the trip but SpaceIL is sending its probe on an elliptical route around the earth, its path expanding until the spacecraft is captured by lunar gravity. This will take more time but save on fuel, allowing the craft to be much smaller and lighter. This helped keep the cost of the project relatively low: an estimated $95 million.
SpaceIL is a non-profit organization established in 2011 aiming to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon. It came in response to the international challenge presented by Google Lunar XPRIZE: to build, launch and land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon.
Participants must be non-government entities or private companies that build and launch the craft into space, soft land it on the moon, and travel for 500 meters on the moon surface. The craft must then send HD photos and video back to earth.
SpaceIL began to build in 2013 in cooperation with Israel Aeronautics Industries. In October 2015, SpaceIL reached a dramatic project milestone by becoming the first team to announce a signed launch contract, that symbolizes an actual “ticket to the Moon.”
Israel is competing against four other groups, from the United States, Japan, India and an international group involving Brazil, Croatia, the US., India, Malaysia, the UK. and Australia.
The competition officially came to an end in March 31, 2018 with no winner claiming the more than $30 million in cash and prizes but SpaceIL is committed to continuing to develop its spaceship.
In addition to its stated space related goals, SpaceIL is actively working to create an Israeli “Apollo Effect.” SpaceIL is committed to inspiring the next generation in Israel and around the world to choose to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).