In the history of spaceflight, three nations have successfully landed a spacecraft on the surface of the moon. Israel hopes to be the fourth, as SpaceIL prepares their robotic lander to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceIL noted late on Wednesday that the mission has been delayed – albeit by only a couple of weeks – to the beginning of 2019 with a moon landing around eight weeks after launch.
The mission began with a Facebook post by Israeli entrepreneur Yariv Bash, who simply asked “Who wants to go to the moon?” Bash, co-founder and CEO of commercial drone developer Flytrex, was joined by friends Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub to compete for the Google Lunar XPrize.
The goal was to land on the moon, travel 500 meters across the surface, and transmit high definition images and video back to Earth. For SpaceIL, this mission was not just about competing for the $20 Million USD prize, but about inspiring a young Israeli generation to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), recreating what they call an “Apollo effect.”
SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization who planned to use any potential prize money to promote science education in Israel. The team wants to prove a small nation with limited resources, such as Israel, can still accomplish great things. The demanding task of landing on the moon has so far been reserved for superpower nations with multi-billion dollar space budgets. But SpaceIL is on track to achieve the feat with $88 million USD invested into development and construction, $27 million of which has been invested by SpaceIL President Morris Kahn.
The project began in 2011, at which point 32 teams were in competition for the Lunar XPrize. SpaceIL became the first team to secure a launch contract in October 2015. The agreement with Spaceflight Industries reserved a ride aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as one of the multiple secondary payloads.
The primary payload for the flight will be the PSN-VI communications satellite for Indonesian satellite operator PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara. Some of the ride along payloads will be deployed into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) along with PSN-VI. Others will be deployed from PSN-VI after the satellite maneuvers into its operational geostationary orbit (GEO). It is currently unclear into what orbit SpaceIL’s spacecraft will be deployed.
On March 30, 2017, the Lunar XPrize concluded with no winner when Google withdrew their sponsorship. The XPrize foundation is continuing the Lunar XPrize as a non-cash competition, with SpaceIL one of five finalist teams moving towards launch.
The other four finalists include Cape Canaveral headquartered Moon Express, whose Lunar Scout mission is scheduled for launch in 2019 aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. Japanese Team Hakuto, under management by lunar exploration company ispace, has reserved two rideshare flights aboard Falcon 9 for 2020 and 2021. The remaining finalists TeamIndus of India and the international Synergy Moon team have yet to secure launch contracts.
SpaceIL told NASASpaceflight.com today that construction was completed a few weeks ago, and the spacecraft is now in the final stages of environmental testing at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) facilities.
The tests include simulating launch conditions, ensuring the spacecraft functions properly after disconnecting from the rocket and testing the durability of the lander’s legs. This week began with testing in a dedicated thermal vacuum chamber that exposed the spacecraft to vacuum conditions and temperatures between -180 C and 70 C.
Pre-launch tests of the spacecraft’s components have been conducted at several locations around the world. Once testing is complete, the spacecraft will be shipped to Cape Canaveral to be processed one month ahead of launch. SpaceIL added to their update that “the launch company (SpaceX) informed them the mission will be postponed for a few weeks”.
After payload deployment, the spacecraft will repeatedly raise its apogee, orbiting Earth in increasingly elliptical orbits before inserting itself into lunar orbit. Once the spacecraft begins its deorbit burn, it will take 15 minutes to land on the surface of the moon. The mission will last 8 weeks from launch until landing.
At the 2018 International Astronautical Conference in Bremen, Germany, the Israel Space Agency (ISA) signed an agreement with NASA to cooperatively utilize SpaceIL’s spacecraft.
NASA is contributing a laser retro-reflector array to precisely locate the spacecraft on the lunar surface after landing, as well as the support of the Deep Space Network (DSN) for communication. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to take scientific measurements and images of the lander as it descends towards the lunar surface.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said “innovative partnerships like this are going to be essential as we go forward to the Moon and create new opportunities there.”
The moon landing was targeted for February 13, 2019 – which is no longer possible. SpaceIL told NASASpaceflight that the spacecraft must land during the Moon’s daytime due to temperature requirements. Landing at the right point in the moon’s orbit was also a factor is determining the targeted landing date.
If successful, Israel will become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on Earth’s natural satellite, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and China. India is also planning the robotic Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon’s surface next year.
The first soft landing on the moon was the Soviet Union’s Luna-9 mission in February 1966. Luna-9 carried radios and television cameras, as well as a radiation measuring instrument. The United States followed with Surveyor-1 in June 1966, carrying its own television camera.
The most recent moon landing was China’s Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover in December 2013. Chang’e-3 carried a telescope, an extreme ultraviolet (EUV) camera, panoramic cameras, and a soil probe. The Yutu rover could transmit video recorded with stereo cameras, perform soil analysis using spectrometers, and carried ground-penetrating radar.
The SpaceIL lander will record video and take panoramic images. It will also measure the magnetic field on and above the moon’s surface for research at the Weizmann Institute of Science. The data from the magnetometer will be shared with NASA and made available to the public through NASA’s Planetary Data System. Commands will be sent to the spacecraft from IAI’s MABAT Plant control room in Yehud.
The spacecraft is 1.5 meters tall, 2 meters in diameter, and is just 585 kg fully fueled.
Approximately one third of the spacecraft’s fuel will be used for landing. SpaceIL’s spacecraft would be the smallest spacecraft to ever land on the moon.
Long after the mission is complete, SpaceIL hopes that the next generation of engineers and scientists will be able to bring their spacecraft back to Earth.