Pics SpaceIL has signed a deal to send a lander to the Moon – making the Israeli non-profit the first competitor in Google's $30m Lunar XPrize contest to ink a rocket launch contract.
Google's Lunar XPrize will hand out cash to the first team that successfully lands a spacecraft on the Moon in one piece, and completes various tasks on the freezing dusty surface.
SpaceIL – an XPrize hopeful – has done a deal with Spaceflight Industries to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before the end of 2017. There is no official date set – that will be determined by the Falcon 9 (currently grounded) being cleared to go and by the other payloads on the mission. The Israeli team is, however, working to an internal date of October 1, 2017.
Spaceflight Industries is an American space company that recently purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher and will manifest SpaceIL's spacecraft as a co-lead spot. It will sit in a designated capsule inside the launcher, among a cluster of secondary payloads.
SpaceIL aims to accomplish not only the first Israeli mission to the moon, but also the world's first private lunar mission. When the company was founded in 2011, SpaceIL said it wanted Israel to be the third country to land anything on the moon, but since then China has had the Jade Rabbit mission. This is not bad company to keep – the city of Beijing has twice the population of Israel. The plucky Jewish state is still fighting well above its weight. SpaceIL says that it befits a small country to have a small lander, although at 140 (earth) kilograms, the Israeli lander is the same weight as the Chinese one. What SpaceIL doesn't have yet is a cool name for the lander.
Eran Privman, CEO of SpaceIL, explained to The Register that SpaceX was pretty much the only game in town. SpaceIL was well advanced in negotiations with the Russians, but pulled out following the Ukraine crisis because the lander has so many American components that the organization feared embargo problems. SpaceIL spoke to Indian and European companies, but only SpaceX was prepared to take the weight of fuel they needed with budget. Even then it took a year to reach a workable solution.
Once the capsule separates from the launcher, it will automatically release the spacecraft, which 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.
The details of the shape of the interior space, which will be shared with one other lead cargo and a number of secondary ones, has led to a significant re-design of the lander; this will be refined over the coming months. With consultation from world-renowned Israeli industrial designer Alex Padwa, engineers based the new design on the space within the SpaceX rocket and many energy calculations.
75 per cent of the spacecraft is fuel and 10 per cent is propulsion system, so packaging is key to the cost. The whole thing weighs 500kg with fuel, while the lander is 140kg.
Direct flight to the Moon takes four days, but given that SpaceIL doesn't fully control the launch date, it won't know where the Moon will be at the time. So it might need to orbit earth until the Moon is in the right place, which could take another month. It also needs to arrive for landing with the sun in the right place to illuminate the landing, and that could mean yet another month hanging in orbit.
Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of Google's Lunar XPrize, said "The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately-funded organization, and kicks off an exciting phase of the competition in which the other 15 teams now have until the end of 2016 to produce their own verified launch contracts. It gives all of us at Lunar XPrize and Google great pride to say, 'the new space race is on.'"
A few landing sites have been identified and SpaceIL will publish a shortlist a year before launch. One interesting challenge the team faced was the need to launch test rockets for the landing gear evaluation. The Israeli government is a bit twitchy about anyone except its own armed forces launching anything. But it made an exception in this case, and SpaceIL became the first non-governmental Israeli organization to get such permission.
A clever piece of technology in the lander is a system which pinpoints features on the surface and then looks at how quickly they move apart as the lander approaches – this gauges descent velocity. The company is keen to highlight that Israel has an advantage in making small satellites, which comes from military necessity, where devices need to fit the constraints of the equipment the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) has.