Science

Israeli lander FOUND ON MOON (in 2017)

Non-profit org first to sign Google XPrize rocket mission contract

By Simon Rockman

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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.

Literally hopping mad

The need to move 500 metres over the surface for the prize has been addressed by the lander "hopping." The plan is a single hop of enough ground over 500m to qualify, but not enough to imperil the landing gear. If at the engine mission there is enough fuel and confidence in the gear, more hops might be attempted.

Something the project is doing outside of the scope of the competition is an experiment on the Moon's magnetic field. In conjunction with the Weizmann Institute, SpaceIL is carrying a magnetometer designed by UCLA.

The Falcon 9 can only reach an elliptical Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit, which is about 40,000km above the earth. The Moon is about 380,000km away, so the SpaceIL project will need to make its own way for the majority of the distance, albeit having had the heavy lifting done by SpaceX.

Once there, it will have to land softly and then fulfill the tasks set out by the XPRIZE project:

1. Make a soft landing (without crashing) of an unmanned spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.

2. Travel 500 meters on, above, or below the surface of the Moon.

3. Send high definition video and pictures back to Earth, including a portrait image of the spaceship.

While SpaceIL is the first company to have signed a launch contract, there are 16 teams competing for the prize, including Astrobiotic and Moon Express from the US, Team Italia, the International teams of Synergy Moon, Euroluna, and Stellar, Independence-X from Malaysia, Hakuto from Japan, Part-Time Scientists from Germany, Team Puli from Hungary, SpaceMETA from Brazil, Plan B from Canada, Angelicvm from Chile, and Team Indus from India.

SpaceIL's Privman told The Reg that he only considered seven of the competitors to be real rivals. They're more focused on getting SpaceIL to the Moon, even if it's not first, than on watching rivals. They want to promote Israeli science and encourage kids to want to be astronauts.

The combination with other launches has a huge effect on the mission. They will be dropped off in low earth orbit, and it's only then that SpaceIL has control of the navigation, boosting to a high elliptical orbit.

Signing the launch agreement was made possible due to the completion of an additional fundraising round led by the two major contributors of SpaceIL: Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Family Foundation and Morris Kahn's Kahn Foundation. The organization has raised more than $40m and is confident in raising the remaining $10m it needs before launch. None of the $30m prize money will go back to sponsors – instead it will be invested in Israeli educational programs.

The SpaceIL organization has 20 full-time staff and 250 volunteers. It plays heavily on the educational benefit of the program and has already engaged schools in the project, in much the same way as the Bloodhound 1,000mph car has in the UK. The aim is to persuade the Israeli youth that it's much cooler to be a space scientist than a reality TV star. Although perhaps the organization could have phrased this better than by saying that it "wanted to make an impact." ®

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