Team Space Israel aims for the moon

A trio of Israeli engineers hopes to get its robot to the moon first, and win a $30 million prize – all in the name of showing schoolchildren that science is fun.

An old joke about Israelis is that Neil Armstrong lands on the moon and reports back to Houston that he already sees an Israeli falafel stand set up there. The Israeli population, despite its relatively small size of 7,684,000, makes its mark on tourism in many countries – you can find Israelis on trails from Katmandu to Machu Picchu – giving locals the impression that the country is much bigger than it is.

Now, Israelis are going where no Israeli has traveled before: the moon.

These are no post-army backpackers, but a group of three young engineers who are hoping to realize their plan to launch an Israeli robot to the moon – and win a $30 million Google Lunar X Prize to boot. This competition is expected to revolutionize space exploration. If the Israelis win it, they would be the third nation to land a probe on the moon.

Chile, Canada, the United States and India have entered some of the 28 other teams the Jewish state will be competing against. The list includes everything from non-profits to university consortia to billion dollar businesses representing 17 nations on four continents. The global competition, the largest in history, was announced in September 2007, with a winner projected by 2015.

A giant leap for space exploration

The Google Lunar Prize organizers are looking for mavericks who think creatively, and who can incorporate innovative breakthroughs in their technologies to make space exploration more affordable. The moon is just the first stepping-stone.

After the United States and Russia journeyed to the moon 40 years ago, earthlings haven’t invested many space research dollars in returning – until now. The competition has the young Israeli research team rallying together businesses and academia to launch a blue-and-white, Israeli-made robot that can walk on the moon.

It will cost more than $2 million to get it there (some reports say up to $10 million), riding on the back of a commercial satellite launcher. According to the contest rules, the Israeli team is supposed to equip its soda bottle-sized ‘bot to walk, take pictures and send a variety of information back down to Earth. The engineers believe they have a fair shot at getting there first.

Race to the galaxy is a national effort

Featured in news outlets such as Forbes, the Space IL team is made up of Yariv Bash, an electronics and computer engineer and CEO of the non-profit operation; Kfir Damari, the COO and a communications engineer and college lecturer; and Tel Aviv University graduate student Yonatan Winetraub. Winetraub also is Space IL’s CTO, and is a graduate of the space studies program at NASA International Space University.

If the Israeli team wins the $30 million prize, Damari says all winnings would be donated to Israeli academia to fund scientific research. “It’s a national effort,” he says, mentioning a number of major players from the industry, like Elbit, which is on board as a sponsor, as well as academic participation from Tel Aviv University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Working in their spare time, the teammates have a lot of ideas, Damari explains. “Right now we are trying to concentrate on creating the spacecraft and are using the current competition to show the children of Israel that science can be fun and cool, and it’s not only about sitting in the lab all day without any sunlight.”
Some 90 percent of the money raised to launch the project must be from non-governmental sources, he notes, providing an extra challenge.

Philanthropic space startup

But to win the prize, the team has to be able to demonstrate space innovation. “The challenge,” says Damari, “is to land our robot on the moon, move it 500 meters and transmit images and video – specific types of video and pictures in high definition.”

Space IL, he adds, is a philanthropic space startup – “three words you never hear together,” he laughs. “We want to promote science during our work.” He points out that in the last 40 years, no one has soft-landed on the moon. “The US had planned to go back to the moon and then closed the program due to lack of funding, because it takes a lot of money.”

So can Israel be the third country to land on the moon? “That’s our goal,” says Damari. And yes, he’s heard the joke about Israeli falafel stand on the moon

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