SpaceIL's spacecraft will be launched in December this year and is scheduled to land on the Moon in February 2019

SpaceIL, a nonprofit organization that is working to send the first Israeli spacecraft to the Moon, announced earlier today that the Moon landing is scheduled for February 13, 2019. The spacecraft will be launched in December 2018 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon rocket. After releasing the other satellites it will be carrying, the rocket will release the Israeli spacecraft at an altitude of 60 thousand kilometers. The spacecraft will continue to orbit Earth in a wide elliptical course, subsequently entering orbit around the Moon.

The spacecraft's elliptical orbit will gradually grow, until it encounters the Moon's orbit, where it will activate its motors to slow down and enter orbit around the Moon. Missing this precise encounter would result in a 28-day landing delay, until its orbit merges once again with that of the Moon.

“It is a small and smart spacecraft,” said SpaceIL CEO, Ido Anteby. “1.5 meters by 2 meters in size, weighing 600 kilograms at the time of the launch. Most of the weight is fuel – upon landing, the spacecraft's weight will be only 180 kilograms. The spacecraft will be in touch with several ground stations on Earth and throughout its entire journey, we will maintain radio contact with it.”

For the spacecraft’s autonomous landing process, an onboard automatic system will activate rockets before landing to slow it down and ensure a smooth landing. Immediately after landing, the spacecraft will place the Israeli flag on the lunar surface, take pictures and videos. It will complete its mission within two days.

“Only three countries have landed spacecraft on the moon so far: the U.S., Russia, and China, and all three did it with a huge financial investment in projects that included thousands of engineers,” said SpaceIL Chair, Morris Kahn. “We are making history. Accomplishing this will make us very proud – the kind of pride we need in Israel. After our rocket will enter orbit, we will all remember what we were doing the moment Israel landed on the Moon.”

The spacecraft is currently undergoing final testing at the Israel Aerospace Industries. In October it will be sent to the U.S. for assembly onboard the rocket, which will be launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Presentation of the SpaceIL spacecraft at an Israel Aerospace Industries factory, July 10, 2018 (Source: SpaceIL)

Missed out on the award

SpaceIL was established in late 2010 in order to compete for Google's $20 million Lunar X-Prize to the first organization that would successfully land on the Moon. The challenge included the smooth landing of a spacecraft, its travel to another location, at least 500 meters from the original landing site, and making a high-quality video broadcast from the lunar surface. The award could amount to $25 million, due to bonuses for meeting intermediate goals, like entering orbit around the Moon and a smooth landing on its surface.

The Israeli team was the first participant to sign a launch contract. In October 2015, SpaceIL announced that its spacecraft would be launched on top of a rocket made by SpaceX, the breakthrough space company established by entrepreneur Elon Musk. The launch date announced at the time was at the end of 2017. However, delays and postponements, along with a budget crisis, put the entire project at risk. Even after the deadline for the prize passed with no winning team declared, SpaceIL decided to forge ahead, turning to other funding sources.

Many millions of dollars were invested so far in the project. SpaceIL’s budget is estimated at $100 million, about $20 million of which is projected to fund the launch alone. Most of the remaining funds were invested in spacecraft development, in collaboration with numerous organizations, including the Israel Aerospace Industries. Innovative systems on board the 600-kilogram spacecraft include a propulsion system to enable the landing and the 500-meter flight on the Moon, as well as a sophisticated navigation system. The majority of the funding came from donors and investors, led by Kahn. Only a small portion of the funding was provided by the State of Israel, amounting to even less than the limited amount permitted by the competition’s laws.

An educational and scientific project

Even though SpaceIL is an advanced technological-engineering project, its founders, Yonatan Weintraub, Yariv Bash, and Kfir Damari hoped to turn it into an educational project that would attract youth and young adults, spark their imaginations, and encourage them to pursue science and engineering studies. “We saw what happened when Apollo landed on the Moon, inspiring enthusiasm for science and engineering among youth, and realized that was our goal,” said Damari. “We want to use our landing as a means to show youth that science and engineering are fun, are amazing, are the way to change the world, with the hope of convincing a few of them to be the ones to build the next spacecraft.”   

SpaceIL has indeed initiated a vast educational project, providing workshops, tutorials, and talks in schools and other institutions throughout the country, by an organization of hundreds of volunteers.

The Israeli spacecraft will also be charged with a scientific mission, led by Prof. Oded Aharonson from the Weizmann Institute of Science: Studying the local magnetic fields on the lunar surface. The spacecraft is equipped with a magnetometer that will measure the magnetic fields both before landing and at the landing site. The magnetic fields of rocks on the Moon preserve the history of its magnetic field, and mapping their exact location can show us much about how its magnetic field first formed: Did it form from an ancient metallic core that is no longer active? Did it originate from meteorite-derived materials? The combination between the rocks' magnetic field and age will improve our understanding of the history and development of our closest celestial neighbor.

Watch SpaceIL's video about assembling the spacecraft:


Translated by Elee Shimshoni