Israel is now officially moonward-bound and – if all goes well – the Star of David will land on the Earth’s enigmatic satellite on 13 February 2019, after a lunar mission launch was announced this week.
The blue and white spacecraft will be fired into the Earth’s atmosphere on the back of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in December, the tiny capsule then travelling more than 238,000 miles in two months.
Touchdown would make Israel only the fourth country to land on the moon after the United States, China and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union). A joint European craft landed in 2006, while Japan and India have succeeded in orbiting missions.
The Israeli spacecraft, which stands at less than five feet tall and is less than half the weight of a Mini Cooper, has been in design since 2013, a project driven by the three founders of non-profit SpaceIL – Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub.
They comprised one of the 16 teams to enter a 2007 lunar competition run by Google, but no entrant satisfied the criteria for the $30 million prize money, so the team set about raising private financing to the tune of $88 million.
One third of that came from Israeli telecoms billionaire Morris Kahn, who this week said the accomplishment – in Israel’s 70th year – would make all Israelis proud and “put us on the world’s space map”.
Beaming with delight, the 87-year old philanthropist said: “After eight challenging years, I am filled with pride that the first Israeli spacecraft will soon be making its way to the moon. I have experienced numerous challenges in my life, but this was the greatest challenge of all. This is a huge achievement for us.”
The spacecraft, which is in its final construction and testing phase, has been made at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) facility in Yehud, while in 2015 the team began working on the launch with SpaceX – the space exploration company of Tesla owner Elon Musk.
The craft’s journey is anything but straight – or straight-forward. At 37,000 feet it will disengage from the launch rocket and begin orbiting Earth in elliptical orbits.
When commanded from the control room, it will enter a higher altitude elliptical orbit around Earth, and when it reaches a point near the moon, it will ignite its engines and reduce its speed to allow the moon’s gravity to capture it.
It will then begin orbiting the moon, until it is time to land, a process that will be executed autonomously by the spacecraft’s navigation control system.
SpaceIL chief executive Ido Antebi said the spacecraft would now undergo “intensive checks and tests to prove that it will withstand the launch, flight and landing conditions,” adding that scientists and engineers had a “determination to complete this unique technological challenge in time for the launch date in December”.
IAI chief executive Josef Weiss said: “Reaching such an achievement during Israel’s 70th year symbolises how far we have come, and particularly the endless accomplishments that we can still achieve.”