(JNS) “Houston, the Eagle has landed” will soon be a common refrain for Israelis.
While famed entrepreneur Elon Musk sent one of his Tesla cars into space last year on top of his SpaceX rocket, this year, Musk will help deliver Israel’s first unmanned lunar spacecraft atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, where it will assume a course that will take it to its final destination: the moon.
At a press conference at defense contractor Israel Aerospace Industries facilities Tuesday, Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL announced its intention to send Israel’s first unmanned spacecraft into orbit in December, and two months later, land it on the lunar surface. Israel would then join the exclusive club of nations that has accomplished this difficult feat since the 1960s, becoming the fourth nation to land a craft on the moon after Russia, the United States and China.
Ido Anteby, chief executive of SpaceIL, outlined the schedule. He explained that SpaceIL will test the spacecraft through October, and in November, the company will deliver it to the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida. The launch date is set for December; two months later, on Feb. 13, the spacecraft is expected to land on the moon.
“It’s a very compact spacecraft,” says Anteby. “We worked together with the IAI team and SpaceIL team on very sophisticated engineering to get [it] all the way to the moon.”
SpaceIL is backed by a number of donors, including U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the Schusterman Family Foundation and South African-born billionaire entrepreneur Morris Kahn.
Kahn said costs associated with the program hover around $95 million. He emphasized that he will underwrite any gaps in funding, saying “this project will not stop, will not have any problem, because of money.”
He also called on the Israeli government to follow through with its pledge to fund 10 percent of the project.
“When the rocket goes into orbit,” Kahn said, “I think we will all remember where we were when Israel landed on the moon.”
“Space is going to be very important to the future,” he added.
Speaking to JNS, Kahn said, “I think this will give us a sense of tremendous pride. … I think this will have an impact on future generations.”
According to SpaceIL, once the spacecraft disengages from the launch rocket, it will begin orbiting Earth in continuously larger elliptical orbits. This long and complex course will allow the spacecraft to reach the moon with minimal fuel consumption. At a certain stage in its orbit, the spacecraft will reach a point that is near the moon. It will then ignite its engines and reduce its speed to allow the moon’s gravity to pull it in, and will begin orbiting it.
The entire journey, from launch to landing, is expected to last about eight weeks.
In addition to taking photos on the surface of the moon, the spacecraft will measure its magnetic field at the landing site, using a magnetometer installed on it. The measurements are intended for research conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science-UCLA.
Once it completes its mission, the spacecraft will remain on the moon, proudly displaying the flag of the State of Israel.
SpaceIL’s spacecraft is not only small–it measures 2 meters-by-1.5 meters and weighs 600 kilograms (1,323 pounds)–but also significantly less expensive than those usually launched into deep space. This will be the smallest spacecraft to land on the moon to date.
That’s one small achievement for the world, but one giant leap for Israel.