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Israeli space cadets say moon shot is no fantasy

By 2015, there will be an Israeli flag next to Neil Armstrong’s bootprint, vows the team behind SpaceIL. They’re not kidding.

If the idea of an Israeli spaceship on the moon sounds risible to you, you’re actually not alone, said Enon Landenberg, the head of commercial marketing at SpaceIL, the foundation committed to putting an Israeli vessel on the moon by 2015.

“People did think it was a joke when we started two years ago, and even now we get that to some extent,” Landenberg, who is also chief innovation officer at the Publicis Israel ad agency, told The Times of Israel Monday. “But SpaceIL is not only not a joke, it will set the agenda for science education and research in Israel in the future, we believe.”

Three of SpaceIL's founders -- Yariv Bash, Yonatan Winetraub, and Kfir Damari -- with a model of the spacecraft they propose to send to the moon (photo credit: Alon Hadar)

It seems that the SpaceIL project has more believers every day; in fact on Monday, Bezeq — Israel’s biggest communications company — officially announced that it, too, believed in Israel’s space future, as put forth by SpaceIL. Bezeq has signed on as the project’s first major corporate sponsor and, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, described how it would provide infrastructure, manpower, and financial support to the project that many people hope will be the biggest scientific achievement in Israel’s young history.

SpaceIL’s mission, according to the organization, is to successfully build, launch into space, and land on the moon a space capsule — which would make Israel the fourth country in the world to achieve this. The inspiration for the project actually came from a contest being run by Google, called LunarX, which promises to award $30 million to a team that can land an unmanned, robotic craft on the moon and carry
out several missions, such as taking a high-definition video and beaming it back to earth; and exploring the surface of the moon by moving 500 meters along the moon’s surface or, alternatively, sending out a vehicle that will traverse that distance.

Google’s purpose, according to the company, is to jump-start private lunar exploration, which, it believes, will be a great springboard to develop new technologies and encourage young people to get more involved in science — inspired by the possibilities of private space exploration.

It’s the “Apollo Effect,” explained Yanki Margalit, chairman of SpaceIL and former head of Aladdin Israel, which he founded. “We’ve seen how space exploration has propelled whole economies and countries to reach new, stronger levels of innovation,” he said at Monday’s press conference. “Israel is ripe for a revolution like that, and SpaceIL is going to make it happen.”

And while it would be great if SpaceIL won the Google LunarX prize, Margalit continued, the project has moved beyond the parameters of the contest. “It’s become a national mission that will inspire a generation of kids to embrace science and technology.” The education aspect of the project looms quite large for Margalit and the rest of the SpaceIL folks. “Today, Israeli kids are watching the local equivalents of the big reality shows, like ‘The Voice’ and ‘Master Chef,’ ” Margalit said. “In 2015, we want to make sure that they are watching a new reality show — “Moon 2.0,” Season One, a show that we believe they will be inspired to want to be a part of, once they see how far Israeli technology has taken us.”

So how does SpaceIL plan to pull this off? Yonatan Winetraub, CTO of SpaceIL and one of its charter members, described some of the technical details of the project. “There are three stages involved in this: getting into space; getting into the moon’s orbit; and landing on the moon and carrying out the required tasks.” The first stage, the most expensive, is actually the easiest for the team; instead of building a launching system and propulsion system, the SpaceIL capsule will “hitch a ride” with a commercial rocket or satellite that is already set to go up in space.

This will allow the team — which numbers about 300, all of them volunteers working in their spare time — to concentrate on the landing and mission aspects of the project, instead of reinventing propulsion systems that already exist.

One of the reasons the SpaceIL craft will be able to get into space via rocket-sharing is because it is slated to be very light: At 120 kilograms in toto (80 kilos for fuel, the rest for electronics and avionics), it will, in fact, be the lightest and smallest spacecraft ever to be launched at the moon, thanks to advances in satellite and component miniaturization (much of it produced in Israel).

Once in space, the team will have a very specific schedule: to move the craft out of earth’s orbit and into that of the moon; to figure out when and where to land, in order to beat the extreme high and low temperatures of the moon’s surface and avoid the roughest terrain; and solve the problem of how to avoid rocks or craters that would destroy the craft — using special sensor equipment developed by SpaceIL, based on advances by the IDF and Israeli companies.

One of the products the team is developing, in partnership with Elbit-Elop, is special video cameras that will stand up to the moon’s harsh climate, in order to be able to transmit high-definition videos back to earth, said Sandy Chefetz, head of photography and avionics for the project. In addition, said Winetraub, the team has developed a special system that will relaunch the lunar lander from the moon’s surface — the first time that this will ever happen, he enthused — in order to move the vehicle the requisite 500 meters along the moon’s surface. The entire drama will be transmitted back to earth via Bezeq optical-fiber technology, explained Ran Langoun, deputy CEO of Bezeq. And, in fact, Bezeq’s fiberoptic cable, along with an Israeli flag, will be the country’s “gift” to the moon: The cable will remain up there, for the benefit of future space travelers.

SpaceIL is a nonprofit foundation, and is relying on donations to get into space, explained Margalit. So far, about $20 million of the $30 million needed to run the project has been raised. On SpaceIL’s Facebook page, visitors are encouraged to make a donation in multiples of “chai” — 18 shekels or dollars.

The organization does not plan on keeping the GoogleX prize if it does win, stated Winetraub; instead, it will channel that money back into science education, and conduct more programs to expose more kids to the importance of space travel and research. “By the middle of 2015, when we are ready to launch, we plan to have visited nearly every school in the country with the message of how important SpaceIL is, and how students can get involved,” expounded Winetraub.

Winetraub enthused that he believes the project will lead to a renaissance of hi-tech development as well, based on SpaceIL’s accomplishments: “The technology is being developed with an eye towards reuse. The miniaturized and super-light spacecraft we have designed, for example, could greatly enhance the opening of space, because the spacecraft are cheap enough that a country could, for example, shoot more than one at the moon or an asteroid, studying it from different perspectives. That has been impossible until now, but technology like this, as well as other innovations we are developing, will inspire many new technologies and inventions, we believe.”

But for the SpaceIL team, it’s more about the kids than anyone else, enthused Landenberg. “This is something that can make science cool again, and we need that to maintain our edge. We want to take scientific issues off the ‘back channels’ and put them on the prime-time channels, where everyone will be watching — including the kids who will be inspired when they see how far Israeli technology has taken them. Who knows how many budding scientists will be inspired and encouraged by the landing?”

By David Shamah