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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

May 23, 2014  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

With dishwasher-sized craft, Israeli Lunar XPrize team shoots for the moon

By BEN SALES JTA news service


An illustration of the craft the Israeli startup SpaceIL hopes to land on the moon. An illustration of the craft the Israeli startup SpaceIL hopes to land on the moon. TEL AVIV – One small step by Israelis could become a giant leap for the State of Israel.

At a Tel Aviv University laboratory, a team of 20 Israelis is building a spacecraft they believe will make Israel only the fourth country – after the United States, Russia and China – to touch down on the moon.

The project, known as SpaceIL, looks like a long shot. The three-legged hexagonal craft appears too puny for interstellar travel, measuring just 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Of the initiative’s three founders, only one holds an academic degree beyond a bachelor’s. And SpaceIL is competing against 17 other teams to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize by being the first private spacecraft to land on the moon. The team hopes to land its craft by the end of next year.

Despite the odds, however, the founders exude the confidence of Nobel Prize-winning scientists – and that’s not all that makes the project Israeli. From its origins to its endgame, SpaceIL is a quintessential story of Israel’s upstart hightech sector.

Its founders came together with little preparation and no money. They overcame a maze of Israeli bureaucracy to qualify for the contest, attracting funding through personal connections to preeminent scientists. And they say they will win the competition not by being the biggest or richest team, but by redefining how to send a spacecraft to the moon.

“Only superpowers have managed to land on the moon,” cofounder Yariv Bash said. “What China did as a nation of 1.3 billion people, SpaceIL is doing as a nonprofit. It puts things in perspective.”

Though the project has also drawn funds from other sources, those behind the project are using this as an opportunity to engage with the public, through educational efforts and fundraising to help launch what they are billing as “the world’s smallest, smartest spacecraft.”

Their latest ploy is a fundraiser through the crowdsourcing website www.indiegogo.com. The goal is to raise $240,000 — one dollar for each mile to the moon. The fundraising campaign began May 13 and closes on June 17.

“We’re landing the first Israeli spacecraft on the Moon. Sounds a bit crazy. But it’s not,” project officials say on their indiegogo website. “Along the way, we are inspiring kids to engage with the wonders of science and technology, much like the Apollo missions did in the 1970s. We want to create an inspiring moment of blue and white history and spur a wave of space-related technology companies. Let’s show the world that going into space is not limited to global superpowers with billion dollar budgets. Smaller teams of creative, innovative scientists and engineers can go into space. We’re doing it.”

Members of the public can join the fundraising effort for a little as $1, which will make them a “mission member.” For that, once the spacecraft lands, members will get a high-resolution photograph taken on the moon emailed to them. For $18, donors can send a 140-character message on a chip aboard the spacecraft. A $60 membership gets the donor a photo from the moon and mission t-shirt.

For the ultimate space aficiando, a donation of $100,000 entitles a donor to a seat in the control room for launch and landing with engineers and other dignitaries, including the President of Israel.

The XPrize contest, launched by Google in 2007, the Lunar XPrize has straightforward rules: The first team to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon, move it 500 meters across the moon’s surface and transmit high-definition photos and video back to Earth, wins $20 million. The mission must be complete by the end of 2015.

Thirty-three teams registered for the competition and nearly all of the remaining 18 contenders plan to launch tank-like rovers to roll across the moon’s surface, which Bash says is more expensive and will consume more fuel than the SpaceIL craft. SpaceIL expects to spend about $36 million on its mission.

SpaceIL’s craft is the size of a dishwasher and weighs just 300 pounds, two-thirds of which is fuel. Rather than drive across the moon, it will take off again after landing and jump 500 meters. Its navigation system will double as a camera and its steering thrusters will guide its landing.

“Instead of taking a bulky radar system, we’re taking cameras with us, so the best thing is to reuse those cameras,” Bash said. “If I can just write more code for my camera, code doesn’t weigh anything.”

Bash pushed through government bureaucracy to register SpaceIL as a nonprofit and entered the race on Dec. 31, 2010 – the last day of registration. Yonatan Winetraub, another of the project’s co-founders, connected with Israel Space Agency head Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, who gave the group three minutes on stage at a space technology convention in Tel Aviv.

It was enough to convince philanthropists at the convention to give SpaceIL its seed money and lure Ben Yisrael to join the group’s board. SpaceIL has since received support from Rona Ramon, the widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who gave $16.4 million.

“They’re young people with a lot of vision, with Israeli initiative,” Ben Yisrael said. “If the government sends a craft to space, that’s OK. But when there’s a group of young people that takes on a project that looks like science fiction, to land something on the moon, it’s different. It’s strong.”

SpaceIL has avoided the expensive, labor-intensive approach of some other teams, but it’s not the only one to go small.

The Penn State Lunar Lion Team, an XPrize team housed at Pennsylvania State University, also is building a small craft that will jump the 500 meters. SpaceIL hopes to expand the appeal of space exploration by spreading its message through Israel’s classrooms. The team is investing in a large educational program, lecturing about the program in Israeli classrooms and working with Israel’s Education Ministry to devise a science curriculum based around space travel. The founders hope to imbue Israel’s next generation with excitement for science and technology.

“We let them know they’re capable of building their own spacecraft,” said the third co-founder, Kfir Damari. “We want to use the story to show that science and technology is exciting, that you can have a huge impact on the world if you’re a scientist and engineer.”

SpaceIL’s team believes it has a good chance of winning. But even if it doesn’t, Damari said landing an Israeli craft on the moon will be reward enough.

Information from www.indiegogo.com was used in this report.


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