If all goes according to plan, the world's first private lunar mission will be launched just two years from now. SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, has secured a launch contract with California-based Spaceflight Industries, and will aim to land a rover on the moon in the second half of 2017. It's the first such launch contract to be verified by the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize competition.
Only three nations have landed modules on the moon—the US, Russia, and China. If SpaceIL is successful, Israel will be the fourth.
Getting to the moon without government funding for the first time, it turns out, is a bit of a labyrinthine process. To do so, SpaceIL solicited funding from donors around the world, and purchased room for its spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket that was built by SpaceX but bought by Spaceflight Industries last September.
SpaceIL's craft will sit in a capsule inside the launcher, along with other, non-moonbound satellites. In orbit, the capsule will separate from the launcher, releasing the spacecraft, which according to XPrize, "will use advanced navigation sensors to guide it to the lunar surface, with engineers in a mission control room standing by to remotely send commands and corrections as needed."
Needless to say, it's an ambitious plan from a team attempting its first lunar mission.
"We are a nonprofit organization and our objective is to land on the moon, and to win the challenge," SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman told me in an interview. "But our vision is to create a spaceflight in Israel and inspire new research to grow in Israel." He aims, especially, to get Israeli kids interested in STEM fields. "I would call it a startup."
This nonprofit startup, which, for now, is expressly aimed at winning the XPrize, has raised $50 million.
"The funding is coming mainly from private donors, some of them are from Israel, and some from overseas," Privman said. Recent backers include the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Family Foundation and the Kahn Foundation. "Of course, the support comes from the Jewish community around the world," Privman continued. He said that many are donating for "the pride of Israel and Israeli technology," and to see the nation land its first rover on the moon.
He said SpaceIL has brought "very different backgrounds into the team to make it as diverse and creative as we can." Completing the challenge "by the book," he says, would require five times the resources.
"I think the most challenging part is to plan and verify that the landing will be successful," Privman said. "In most of the areas of the mission we have some experience, either us or subcontractors. Landing on the moon is something else; the sensors are very fragile. It's very difficult to test it or verify that it's good enough. Of course with space missions, one small wire will malfunction and the whole mission can fail."
To win the Google Lunar XPrize, "a privately funded team must successfully place an unmanned spacecraft on the moon's surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth, before the mission deadline of December 31, 2017," according to the organization.
Additionally, SpaceIL hopes to be able to do a little science while it's roving the lunar surface. The organization has teamed up with UCLA to integrate an instrument that will take very accurate readings of the moon's magnetic field, in an attempt to glean more information about how it was created, Privman said.
The whole package—including the Israeli nonprofit's innovation, SpaceX tech and UCLA science—has been met with the utmost approval of the Google Lunar XPrize team.
"XPRIZE and Google are thrilled to announce that SpaceIL has secured a verified launch contract," Chanda Gonzales, the senior director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, told me via email. "This is an unprecedented and impressive milestone in the competition and we are proud to see how far they've come from both a fundraising and an engineering perspective, and we look forward to the journey ahead, culminating on the surface of the moon."