YEHUD: An Israeli organisation announced plans Tuesday to launch the country’s first spacecraft to the moon in December, with hopes of burnishing Israel’s reputation as a small nation with otherworldly high-tech ambitions.
The unmanned spacecraft, shaped like a pod and weighing some 585 kilogrammes (1,300 pounds) at launch, will land on the moon on February 13, 2019 if all goes according to plan, organisers SpaceIL told a news conference in Yehud, central Israel.
The vessel will be launched via a rocket from American entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX firm and its mission will include research on the moon’s magnetic field.
Its first task, however, will be to plant an Israeli flag on the moon, organisers said. The project began as part of the Google Lunar XPrize, which in 2010 offered $30 million (25 million euros) in awards to encourage scientists and entrepreneurs to come up with relatively low-cost moon missions.
Three young Israeli scientists, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub, decided to join the fray. “We met in a pub and started to discuss what it meant,” Damari recalled. The trio formed SpaceIL and partnered with state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, envisioning a very small craft they believed could land on the moon by 2013.
“As we went deeper into the project and the more people joined, we understood its complexity,” Damari said. Although the Google prize expired in March without a winner having reached the moon, Israel’s team pledged to push forward.
A key figure to hop on board the project was Morris Kahn, a South African-born Israeli billionaire, who heard SpaceIL present their project. “I thought this was a great idea,” he said, “and I asked them — ‘do you have any money?'”
“They hadn’t really thought about the financial side,” Kahn said, relaying how he gave them an initial grant of $100,000, with his support growing with the project to largely cover the $95 million project.
To Kahn, for Israel to have a stake on the moon alongside the three global powers already there — the United States, Russia and China — would be “a tremendous achievement” that “will give us a sense of pride we really need”.