Israeli scientists shoot for the moon with dishwasher-sized spacecraft

It's only the size of a dishwasher and weighs as much as giant panda, but its inventors are hoping this spacecraft will go where no other Israeli vessel has gone before – to the moon.

Working on a shoestring budget, the Israeli scientists and engineers building the shuttle – temporarily named “Sparrow” – believe it will land on the moon by the end of 2015, a feat only the United States, Russia and China have managed so far.

The landing will be the toughest task in the Sparrow's mission, not least because of the moon's many mountains and craters, said Yariv Bash, an electronic engineer and the founder of SpaceIL, the group building the spacecraft.

“(Landing) is going to be either 15 minutes of horror or 15 minutes of fame, depending on the outcome,” he told Reuters.

SpaceIL, which is backed mainly by philanthropists, was founded to compete for Google's LunarX Prize, unveiled in 2007. The $20 million prize will go to the first team to land a spacecraft on the moon, make it jump 500 metres and transmit images and video back to earth.

Thirty-three teams started out in the running and they are now down to 18, including competitors from the United States, Italy, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Canada, India and Chile.

SpaceIL believes it has an advantage because the unmanned craft is comparatively small – the size of a dishwasher with legs – and weighs just 140 kg (300 pounds).

Most of the craft's weight is its fuel and propulsion system. By the time it lands on the moon, it will weigh a mere 40 kg.

“The smaller you are, the less it will cost to go to space,” Bash said.

The grey, six-sided shuttle will be fitted with nine computers and eight cameras, making it the smartest and smallest spacecraft to have landed on the moon, according to Bash.

At the moment there is just a prototype, with plans to start building the real machine later this year, a process that should take 12-18 months.


SpaceIL has raised $21 million in donations out of a total budget of $36 million it believes is needed to build and land the craft. It plans a crowd-funding event to secure the rest of the financing.

The group estimates other teams' budgets at $50-$100 million.

Unlike some of the other competitors in the space race, SpaceIL – which has a team of 250 people of mainly volunteers – is a nonprofit organisation and does not need to show investors a return.

“It's a harder sell to private investors,” said Daniel Saat, SpaceIL's head of business development. “We have to convince investors we are doing something of impact for Israel that inspires and changes the country.”

Even if it does not win, SpaceIL hopes to create an “Apollo effect” that will lead to a new wave of space engineers and scientists in the way Neil Armstrong's 1969 moon walk did, and turn space exploration into Israel's next start-up industry.

“For $36 million, we are going to show the world that there is no longer this glass ceiling in outer space exploration,” Saat said.

Israel, which has experience in sending spy satellites to the lower orbit, does not have capabilities to launch into space, although the Israeli Space Agency is looking to develop a civilian space programme.

SpaceIL said it was close to signing a launch agreement and was considering sites in the United States, Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Israeli craft will remain on the moon indefinitely and SpaceIL is mulling doing a scientific experiment in studying the magnetic core of the moon.

Should SpaceIL win the prize, they plan to invest the money into new projects, which may include a probe to Mars.

Reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Raissa Kasolowsky

An Israeli ‘Apollo Effect’?

The schoolchildren hung on Daniel Saat’s every word as he spoke about orbits, atmospheres, propulsion and moon hopping — not the same as moonwalking.

As the director of business development for SpaceIL — Israel’s project to send a micro-spaceship to the moon — Saat and founder Yariv Bash had traveled from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 on a whirlwind trip organized by Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. Their trip included a visit to about 150 elementary and middle school pupils at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. 

Handing out prizes to students who asked questions, Saat did his best to describe the spacecraft SpaceIL is building in terms that little nonscientists could understand.

“Our spacecraft is about the size of your washing machine at home,” he said. “The bigger and heavier it is, the more expensive it is, so the smaller we can make our spacecraft, the more efficient and cheaper the ride to outer space will be.”

Bash, a Tel Aviv native, founded Space IL in 2010 as a response to Google’s Lunar X Prize competition, which challenges private companies to land a craft on the surface of the moon, travel 500 meters above, below, or on its surface and send back proof — a video feed — to Earth. The first team to complete the challenge before the end of 2015 will win $20 million. Other cash incentives are included for, among other things, operating at night and landing near an Apollo site. 

Bash and Saat are shooting for the top prize, but even if they don’t win, Saat said, SpaceIL intends to land a craft on the moon. That would make Israel the fourth nation to ever successfully complete the 238,900-mile journey, behind the United States, the former Soviet Union and China.

Saat spoke proudly of how cost effectively SpaceIL is traveling to outer space. Comparing it to America’s 1969 moon landing, he asked students to guess how much that mission would cost in today’s dollars. The children threw out guesses: $10 million? $50 million? $100 million? $1 billion?

Nope. The Apollo 11 mission, which cost about $25.4 billion in 1969, would cost closer to $200 billion today, based on numbers provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Although SpaceIL doesn’t have to worry about getting a man on the moon, its budget is a meager $36 million. And keeping the spacecraft small, about 300 pounds, by skirting things like a rover, will help keep the project within budget.

Dozens of hands went up throughout SpaceIL’s presentation, as students asked questions about outer space and the project. Jacqueline Englanoff, a Hillel sixth-grader, was intrigued by SpaceIL’s method of sending back information to Earth — antennae, instead of satellites, to help make the relatively small craft a bit lighter. 

Yonah Berenson, another sixth-grader, was amused by how the Israeli scientists plan to navigate the surface of the moon once the craft lands. Instead of navigating the required 500 meters using a rover — complete with wheels, which every other competitor is using — SpaceIL will use “the hop,” which involves landing and then taking off again with the fuel remaining in the propulsion system, landing 500 meters away.

“It was very cool,” Berenson said. “I liked how they [said] that the spacecraft was going to hop on the moon — sort of funny.”

The awe that the presentation inspired in the students is a miniature effect of what the SpaceIL team hopes will happen in Israel if it succeeds in the moon landing — a potential Israeli version of the “Apollo effect,” which rejuvenated Americans’ interest in mathematics and engineering following Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. Saat envisions Jews in Israel and around the world glued to their television sets when SpaceIL makes its trip to the moon — between late 2015 and mid-2016, if Google extends the deadline, which many think it will.

Saat told the students that once the craft leaves Earth’s orbit, it will enter that of the moon, and will be speeding along at an amazing two miles per second. Next, as Bash said, will come the most difficult part: the landing.

“You can’t really simulate it here on earth,” he said. 

Slowing the craft down from two miles per second to a speed that will allow it to safely land will be no easy feat, but when the mission reaches that point, years of work and millions of dollars will hinge on the precise execution of a few minutes, or seconds.

“It will be something that only superpowers have done before,” Saat said. “We hope that we won’t join the club of … countries that have crashed things into the moon.”

Celebrate Israel Independence Day festival map

Click image to enlarge map.

1. Main Stage — Performance by legendary Israeli rock band Mishina, The Spazmatics and the official Independence Day Ceremony. 

2. SpaceIL — Photo opportunity with Israel's first space shuttle which will be sent to the moon.

3. Cafe Tel Aviv — Live performances throughout the day at the festival's “chill out spot.”

4. Beer Garden — Beer, wine, spirits and good eats.

5. Vendor Village — Learn about your local community organizations and businesses. 

6. Israeli Artist Pavilion — 21 artists from Tel Aviv's artist colony will showcase art, jewelry and judaica. 

7. The Time Travel Tunnel — An authentic journey through the history of Israel.

8. Community Oil Painting of Tel Aviv — Take part in the enormous painting of the Tel Aviv coastline.

9. Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People — Stop by the museum of the the Jewish people and find your family roots.

10. The Israeli Scouts — Participate in the challenging activities for kids and teens.

11. Kids Stages — Non-stop performances throughout the day for kids of all ages.

12. KidZone — Kidspace Museum, CreateLAB arts and crafts, puppy petting zoo and reptiles, drum circle, stilt walkers, face painters, balloon artists, a giant amusement park and more.

13. Israeli Folk Dancing — Join Israel Yaakovi for authentic Israeli dancing.