The forefathers of the Jewish people received a divine commitment that their offspring would be as numerous as the stars in heaven – but they were not given any assurance that their offspring would journey into space.
Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who was lost along in February 2003 along with six other crew members of the failed NAS mission Columbia, reached space but tragically crashed and were killed at the end of the mission.
Israel? A space superpower? Indeed. This country has already built and dispatched with foreign rockets numerous mini-satellites into space for a variety of uses. One of them, called Venus, was built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and launched with French space agency help last year as the world’s smallest satellite of its kind and Israel’s first environmental satellite.
Environmental satellites have become very important in recent years because of problems on Earth resulting from population increase, declining space for agriculture, pollution and natural disasters.
Venus is observing fields and nature from space for environmental research, monitoring land conditions, forestry, agriculture, the quality of water sources and more.
But now, Israel is about to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the moon, thus joining the three superpowers – the US, Russia and China – that have done already done so. Called SpaceIL, the private project to reach the moon has just received a boost, from Sylvan Adams, the Canadian Jewish businessman and philanthropist who was behind the launch – for the first time – of the Giro d’Italia bike race last May in Israel and not in Italy. Adams is giving $5 million for the project.
The SpaceIL spacecraft, called Sparrow and weighing less than 600 kilos, is scheduled to left off in early 2019 from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard a SPACEX Falcon 9 rocket. It has located ground stations all over the world to enable communication with the spacecraft.
Adams announced his contribution as part of a special tour that took place this week at a factory of Israel Aerospace Industries where the spacecraft is being assembled. Adams, who is currently celebrating his 60th birthday, said at the event that “this contribution to strengthening Israel’s space program and encouraging education for excellence and innovation among Israel’s younger generation is the best gift I could have given. I believe that sending a first Israeli spacecraft to the moon will inspire Israeli children and encourage many of them to become interested in science and technology – and to believe that everything is possible.
SpaceIL president Morris Kahn, who himself donated $27 million to the project, said: “I thank Sylvan Adams for his generous contribution to our effort. He joins an amazing group of donors with a common vision – to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon. U believe that joining it will help. We must raise the remaining money to complete our ambitious mission.”
Dr. Ido Antebi, IAI’s CEO, added: “We are progressing in a series of tests carried out at IAI’s space plant. At the same time, we are stepping up activities to promote scientific and technological education in the Israel, ahead of launch.”
Inbal Kreiss, the deputy general manager of the MBT space division, said: “IAI is proud to partner with SpaceIL in the development and construction of the spacecraft, a tremendous technological achievement that constitutes a significant part of the civilian space capabilities in Israeli technology and science.”
Since the establishment of SpaceIL, the mission to land an Israeli spaceship on the moon has become an Israeli national project with educational values. It was previously funded by Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Sammy Sagol, Lynn Schusterman, Steven Grand and others. Kahn, chose to fund a significant part of the project by donating $27 million.
The founders of the team in addition to Kahn are Yariv Bash, former electronics and computer engineer in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and currently the CEO of the Flytrex company; Kfir Damari, a computer networking lecturer; and Yonatan Winetraub, formerly a satellite systems engineer at IAI, and currently a biophysics doctoral candidate at Stanford University.
Last October, SpaceIL and the Israeli Space Agency announced a collaboration with NASA that would enable SpaceIL to improve the ability to track and communicate with the spacecraft before, during and after landing on the moon. Over the years, additional partners have been added from the private sector, government companies and academia; these include the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot,, the Israeli Space Agency, the Science and Technology Ministry and Israel’s major telecommunications company, Bezeq.
SpaceIL is the only Israeli competitor in the international competition, the Google Lunar XPRIZE. To win the first prize of $20 million, competitors were required to make a soft landing (without crashing) on the moon; travel 500 meters on, above or below the surface of the moon; and send high definition video and pictures back to Earth. In the end, no prize was awarded, but SpaceIL said it is determined to continue its mission and launch the spacecraft, regardless of the international competition.
After the launch, Sparrow will perform maneuvers to be captured in a lunar orbit and revolve around the moon for two to four weeks. In the right orbit around the landing site, it will decelerate until soft-landing on the lunar surface.
SpaceIL aims to promote in Israel the “Apollo effect,” like that which boosted interest in space among American youth – to encourage the next generation of Israeli children to choose science, engineering, technology and mathematics. Despite its technological excellence, Israel faces a serious lack of scientists and engineers.
But SpaceIL is not waiting for the landing to create the impact. To date, SpaceIL has lectured to more than 900,000 kids in classrooms all over Israel, and it is developing curriculum, videos and online content to reach many more.
According to SpaceIL activists, “space and space exploration are the next frontier. The space industry has produced satellite TV, water filters, UV sunglasses and many more inventions. Our success will be a source of pride for Israel, while introducing the world to new and innovative ways to explore outer space. In addition, the space industry has the potential to become a major growth engine for the Israeli economy.”