SpaceIL completes lunar lander for February launch

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WASHINGTON — A privately funded Israeli lunar lander originally built for a prize competition is now complete and ready for launch in early 2019.

In a Dec. 17 ceremony at an Israel Aerospace Industries facility, workers installed the final, symbolic element of the SpaceIL spacecraft: a digital “time capsule” consisting of three discs containing information about the mission and Israel. The 600-kilogram lander is now complete and ready for shipment to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for launch.

“Inserting the discs into the spacecraft, which is a real ‘time capsule,’ indicates the spacecraft’s readiness to blast off from the launch site in a few weeks,” said Ido Anteby, chief executive of SpaceIL, in a statement.

The lander, recently named Beresheet, the Hebrew word for “Genesis,” will soon be shipped to Florida where it will launch in early 2019 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 mission whose primary payload will be the PSN-6 communications satellite. That launch is currently scheduled for mid-February.

Once released into a supersynchronous transfer orbit, the lander will use its own propulsion to travel to the moon. The spacecraft will land about two months after launch. If successful, it will be the first non-governmental spacecraft to land on the moon.

SpaceIL originally developed the lander to compete for the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize, which offered a $20 million grand prize to the first private team to land a spacecraft on the moon, move at least 500 meters across the surface and collect images and other data. SpaceIL relied largely on philanthropic funding to build the lander, a one-off mission intended to stimulate interest in science and engineering among Israeli students.

However, IAI, responsible for building the spacecraft, has more recently shown an interest in using that platform for future missions. “When I started out, I thought it was a one-time thing,” said Opher Doron, vice president and general manager of IAI’s space division, in a September interview. “Now there’s renewed interest in the moon, and we’ve got a lunar lander. There might be some business in going to the moon.”

Doron reiterated that interest in the statement about completing the lander. “There is no doubt that the technological knowledge acquired by IAI during the development and construction of Beresheet, together with SpaceIL and combined with the space capabilities developed over more than 30 years at IAI, puts us at the global forefront in the ability to complete lunar missions,” he said.

NASA has been working to stimulate development of small commercial landers with its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, where it buys payload space on commercial landers. However, IAI and SpaceIL are not directly eligible for those awards since NASA requires the prime contractors to be based in the United States.

NASA, though, did sign an agreement with the Israel Space Agency Oct. 3 to offer other support for the SpaceIL mission. NASA has given SpaceIL a laser retroreflector for the lander to support laser ranging experiments. NASA will provide communications support through the Deep Space Network and images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which NASA is offering to other international and commercial landers.

In return, SpaceIL will share data with NASA collected by a magnetometer instrument on the lander provided by the Weizmann Institute of Science intended to measure the magnetic field at the landing site.