Israel nonprofit competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition — will use SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch its lunar lander into space, the group announced today in Jerusalem.
The rocket will launch the team’s vehicle into lower Earth orbit sometime in the second half of 2017. From there, the rocket will carry the lander farther into space, and then the spacecraft will propel itself the rest of the way to land gently on the Moon.
With today’s announcement, SpaceIL is the first of the 16 Lunar X Prize teams to book a ride off the planet. If the mission succeeds, it will be the first Israeli mission — as well as the first private spaceflight mission — to soft-land a vehicle on the lunar surface. Eran Privman, CEO of SpaceIL, claimed the group isn’t focused on the competition, but they are confident they can win. “I promise you once we land on the Moon, we’ll look around and see we are the first,” he said.
Only three nations have ever landed a spacecraft intact on the Moon: the United States, Russia, and China. Many countries have slammed lunar orbiters or probes into the Moon to study its environment, but gently landing a spacecraft is trickier. The Moon is big enough to have a gravitational pull, but it doesn’t have an atmosphere to slow incoming objects. Spacecraft in lunar orbit must fire retro-rockets, very precisely, in the opposite direction of the Moon. That way they can slowly descend without slamming into the rock.
It’s a delicate procedure that usually requires a lot of time and money, which is why only government agencies have been able to do it up until now.