Israeli X Prize Team Announces Launch Contract for Lunar Mission

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — An Israeli team participating in the Google Lunar X Prize competition has a contract to launch its spacecraft on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2017, the first launch contract officially confirmed by the prize’s organizers.

Tel Aviv-based SpaceIL announced Oct. 7 that it has a contract to fly its lunar lander as one of the primary payloads on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch purchased in September by Spaceflight Industries. That launch, which will carry about 20 other spacecraft, is scheduled for the second half of 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SpaceIL Chief Executive Eran Privman said in an Oct. 7 phone interview that he chose the SpaceX launch opportunity after an extensive search. “We tried everyone around the world,” he said, including Indian, Russian, European and U.S. vehicles. SpaceIL had previously considered flying as a secondary payload on a planned Russian lunar mission, he said, but the Ukraine crisis raised concerns about getting export approvals.

Privman said some elements of the spacecraft design had to wait until the selection of the launch vehicle, since the interface of the spacecraft to the rocket is a design factor. The team is now working on the detailed design of the lander, and is farther along on other elements of the spacecraft, including its sensors and avionics.

SpaceIL has raised about $40 million to date, with about 80 percent of that coming from two organizations: the Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Family Foundation; and the Kahn Foundation. Privman said SpaceIL will need to about $10 million more during the next 18 months to complete the spacecraft. “We are confident that this is achievable,” he said.

Privman said the project is on track, technically and financially, to launch in the second half of 2017. “We believe it is challenging, but doable,” he said of SpaceIL’s schedule.

SpaceIL is one of 16 teams remaining in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which was announced eight years ago to stimulate development of commercial lunar ventures. The competition offers a $20 million grand prize for the first privately developed spacecraft to land on the moon, travel at least 500 meters across its surface, and return videos and other data.

The X Prize Foundation, which is running the prize, said the contract was the first they had verified. That milestone allows the foundation to extend the competition’s deadline through the end of 2017. The prize would have expired had no team submitted a valid launch contract by the end of this year.

That verification has two aspects, said Chanda Gonzales, senior director of the prize at the X Prize Foundation. One is financial — confirming that the contract is valid and that initial down payments have been paid. The other is to validate the technical feasibility of the proposed launch.

Gonzales said the foundation worked with SpaceIL for several months to review its plans before signing off on their launch contract. “At the end of the day, we were able to verify and accept everything in the contract,” she said.

SpaceIL is not the only team registered for the Google Lunar X Prize to claim to have a launch contract. Moon Express of Mountain View, Calif., announced Oct. 1 that it had a contract with for three launches of the Electron launch vehicle under development by Rocket Lab.

However, that contract has not yet been verified by the foundation. “They haven’t submitted the notification of their contract yet,” said Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of the X Prize Foundation. “SpaceIL is in a class of one.”

But with SpaceIL’s contract verified and the competition deadline extended, the other 15 teams have until the end of 2016 to submit their own launch contracts to remain in the competition. Gonzales said she could not estimate how many of those teams were likely to meet that deadline. “I am hopeful that we’ll have two, three or four teams,” she added.

While the Google Lunar X Prize is intended to help support development of commercial lunar ventures, SpaceIL does not have commercial ambitions. “We are a nonprofit organization,” with a goal of supporting science and technology education in Israel, Privman said. “The real vision is not to put a lander on the moon but use it as a tool to inspire, like the Apollo program in the U.S. in the 1960s.”

Weiss, though, said the prize was still supporting its commercial space goals. “There really is a serious effort to demonstrate that space entrepreneurs and the opening of markets is a way to do space,” he said.