Space IL tells "Globes" that it hopes to land an Israeli robotic spacecraft on the moon in 2012. Space IL is the only Israeli team participating in Google's Lunar X Prize.
Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) is offering $20 million in prizes to the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth. Google is also offering prizes for the first team whose robot travels five kilometers on the lunar surface, the first team to find water on the moon, and the first team to photograph the Apollo lunar modules to prove that they are on the moon and not in some Hollywood studio, as some conspiracy crackpots claim.
26 teams are participating in the Lunar X Prize, whose deadline to land on the moon is 2015.
The Space IL team is currently focused on mission planning and testing components. It will soon begin building the spacecraft. "We're looking for volunteers in every field, including construction," Space IL COO Kfir Damari said at the Icon Conference at Tel Aviv's Cinemateque.
Space IL plans to collaborate with the public on other elements of its mission, including financing. The team promises to donate the prize, if it wins, to education. "We launched the mission to bring the Israeli public and youth closer to science," Damari said.
Space IL has presented its mission at schools nationwide. "We focus on eighth and ninth graders," he says. "That's the age when students have to choose their academic program. We're saying that science is fun, that it can be done in Israel, and not just at NASA, and that young people can also engage in science, and not just grey-haired professors."
Damari added, "We are also working with the "Future Scientists and Inventors" youth group at Tel Aviv University. Outstanding teenagers in science chose the best site for us to land on the moon."
Space IL says that other teams competing for the Lunar X Prize have commercial objectives, and therein line's Space IL's advantage. "Some of the other teams want to be subsequently acquired by national or commercial space programs, so the mission must be 100% reliable. There are teams that are being paid by research teams in exchange for carrying research equipment to the moon, so their missions must be very big. Accordingly, their budgets are even larger than the prize, and the mission complexity is high," Damari told "Globes".
Space IL is only aiming to meet Google's criteria for the prize, and no more, so the team's task is smaller. The team's spacecraft is about the size of a washing machine, the photography and transmission unit is the size of a mobile phone, with the rest of the space devoted for the carrying of fuel.
If the first mission fails, the team can improve the spacecraft for a second attempt at an extra cost of just $100,000. This approach fits in with Google's vision: space research at an affordable price.
Space IL has raised $1.5 million to date, mostly from private investors, including Aladdin Knowledge System founder Yanki Margalit. Funding has also been obtained from Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1), Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT) Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
All of Space IL's team members hold full-time jobs: CTO Yonatan Winetraub works on satellites at IAI; Damari is a computer and information security consultant; and CEO Yariv Bash plans to soon resign as an electronics engineer to work full time for the project. The project will have ten paid employees. Damari says, "This isn't exactly a salary, but it's enough to pay the rent in Tel Aviv."
Space IL's spacecraft, which resembles a washing machine topped with an Israeli flag and camera, will hitch a ride to the International Space Station, where it will then continue independently on to the moon. En route, the spacecraft will have to deal with the huge temperature gradient between the side facing the sun and far side. Damari says that it will do this using the "shwama" (meat on a rotisserie) method. "The spacecraft will rotate around an axis during the entire flight, so that at any one moment one part of it faces the sun."
The biggest challenge will be the landing. Since the moon has no atmosphere, there is no aerial friction to slow the spacecraft's descent, but there is gravity. Most of the spacecraft's fuel will be burning during the descent to slow it to a soft landing. "16 spacecraft built by national space agencies have already crashed on the moon," Winetraub told "Globes". "There are only two flags on the moon, and 16 beneath it."
The next stage will be the 500-meter trip on the lunar surface. "The lunar regolith is powdery, which disrupts wheeled travel. We said fine - we'll jump," says Winetraub. After landing, the spacecraft will activate its motor for jumping and new landings. "It's very scary," says Damari, "but it's the right way to move around."
The spacecraft is designed to survive for just one lunar day - two earth weeks. It will land at dawn, so it will not have to deal with the extreme fall in temperature when night falls and temperatures plummet to near absolute zero.
"In contrast to what we learned from Pink Floyd, there is no dark side of the moon," says Damari. "There is the far side, which does not face Earth and is impossible to see, which we call the dark side. But the moon rotates on its axis once a month, so the far side is lit by the sun for two weeks every month, just like the near side."
After the mission, the spacecraft will remain on the moon. "You can go and pick it up if you want," says Winetraub.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 18, 2011
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