02/22/2019

Israel Launches The First Privately-Funded Lunar Mission

7:17 minutes

a squat conical shaped lander with four landing legs
A model of the Beresheet spacecraft. Credit: אמא של גולן via Wikimedia Commons

During the last sixty years, only three countries have sent landers to the moon: the U.S., China and the Soviet Union. Israel may become the fourth. On Thursday, SpaceIL—an Israeli company—launched the Beresheet spacecraft. The journey to the lunar surface will take 40 days. If the spacecraft does reach the moon, it will be the first mission completed by a private company without the financial backing of one of the big space agencies.

Jason Davis, digital editor for the Planetary Society, talks about what this mission means for lunar science and its implications for nonprofit and commercial companies sending missions to the moon.


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Segment Guests

Jason Davis

Jason Davis is a Digital Editor at the Planetary Society in Tucson, Arizona.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of space, in the last 60 years only three countries have sent landers to the Moon. They are the US, China, and the Soviet Union. Israel may become the fourth. 

Yesterday, SpaceIL, an Israeli company, launched the Beresheet spacecraft aboard an American SpaceX rocket headed for a landing on the Moon. And if it’s successful, not only will Israel join the short list of successful Moon landings, but this will be the first Moon mission pulled off by a private company, most of its estimated $95 million budget coming from private and public donations. 

What does this mission mean for lunar science and the future of nonprofit and commercial space missions? Here to fill us in is Jason Davis, digital editor for The Planetary Society. He’s based out of Tucson, Arizona. Welcome to Science Friday. 

JASON DAVIS: Hey Ira. Thanks so much for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. So the Beresheet lander wasn’t backed by the Israeli government or a big space agency. How did it come about and get its funding? 

JASON DAVIS: Yes, so SpaceIL, the nonprofit you mentioned, they created this mission in response originally to the Google Lunar XPRIZE. And that was a contest with about $30 million on the line for a private company to launch a spacecraft to the Moon, land on the Moon, take images from the surface, send them back to Earth, and then move 500 meters. SpaceIL wanted to do this by turning on its engine again and kind of hopping to a new location. 

There was a deadline of 2018. Unfortunately, none of the competitors were able to meet that deadline. However, by the time that happened, SpaceIL had secured a launch contract, and had nearly finished the spacecraft. So they went ahead and pressed forward with a mission. Like you said, they had private investors backing them. And they also were collaborating with the Israeli space agency. 

And finally last night– late last night– the mission launched. It was a ride share with a couple other satellites on this Falcon 9 rocket from Florida. And we just heard this morning that the spacecraft seems to be doing OK so far. It’ll take 40 days about to get out to the Moon, and spend about a week there orbiting the Moon before it lands. So it’ll be interesting to see if they’re successful. 

IRA FLATOW: And what kind of science is the lander going to do on the Moon? 

JASON DAVIS: Yeah, so it has one single science instrument, because it was mainly designed to fulfill these goals of the XPRIZE, which was to send home pretty pictures. But it does have a magnetometer on board. And there’s an open question about kind of the origin story of the Moon and Earth. And one of the ways that you can unpack that is by looking at the magnetic field in rocks on the Moon. 

The area where it’s landing, the Sea of Serenity– and it’s actually one of the big, dark splotches you can see from Earth when you step out in your backyard, if you look it up– where it’s landing, there have been magnetic anomalies detected. And actually the Apollo 17 mission landed on the edge of it. And by taking measurements in the magnetic field as it lands, and then after it lands on the surface, this will hopefully fill in scientists on a piece of the puzzle that kind of tells the story of how the Moon got a magnetic field originally, and ultimately the origin of the Moon and Earth. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. 

A lot of this is just bragging rights, is it not, I mean for Israel? And sort of like a nascent space program like the United States had back in the ’60s, where it can use its space race to promote education, science, things like that? 

JASON DAVIS: Yeah, SpaceIL has been very upfront about saying that one of their major, non-tangible goals was to inspire more Israelis to pursue STEM careers. There’s evidence that shows there’s a decline in Israel of young Israelis pursuing those careers. So they kind of wanted to create this Apollo moment, just like you’re describing, and inspire people to kind of take up the baton and get into these careers. 

IRA FLATOW: But it’s also, I guess, we’re talking about it as being the only company to land on the Moon. It’s a private company. But this seems to be the trend that our president and other companies are trying to do. There a lot of private companies trying to get into space now, and do major projects. 

JASON DAVIS: Yeah, yeah. So that is definitely the other angle of it, that this will be a pretty big landmark, if they land successfully, that a private company or a private nonprofit in this case has been able to do this. And yeah, like you said, this is a trend. And the Trump administration has directed NASA back to the Moon. This is one of many administrations that has tried to get humans back beyond low-Earth orbit. The difference is that they envision commercial companies and private companies playing a major role in this. 

So to kind of understand the background of that, you have to look a little bit at the economics of that– why are these companies getting into it, and who’s going to be the main client for all of this? Right now that the majority of the funding would still come from NASA. That’s obviously the biggest customer when you want to go to the Moon or something like that. But NASA and some of these companies envision that one day you might be able to create kind of a self-sustaining ecosystem on the Moon– a self-sustaining, new business model– where you have lots of companies and international partners all working together on the Moon. 

Now NASA is doing a little bit to spur some of this. And it’s a little bit confusing, because there are some major NASA-owned components. They have a giant rocket system called the Space Launch System, and a capsule called Orion that are very kind of traditional-looking solutions to this problem. They’re going to build a small space station in lunar orbit that will have some involvement from the private sector there as well. 

But where these little companies come in is that they want to start sending small payloads to the surface to kind of pave the way for humans. And we’re talking about very small landers, kind of on the order of this Beresheet lander that just launched. And they’ve already picked some of these payloads that they want to fly to the Moon, and they will be essentially choosing private companies, or asking private companies to step forward and ship these to the Moon. They already have nine companies that they’ve picked, kind of shortlisted, for this. 

And then at the same time, you also have the kind of the flashier new space players, if you will, the SpaceXs and the Blue Origins. They have kind of been able to show that they would like to kind of bypass NASA’s methodology altogether. 

SpaceX has a giant rocket system that they’re working on. It’s called Starship. And they want to be able to send that directly to the surface of the Moon. Blue Origin has promised this Amazon Prime, if you will, kind of a delivery system. And so these approaches, they don’t right now fit into NASA’s vision for all of this. So we’re still kind of waiting to see how it all shakes out in the long run, and what the business model’s going to be. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, thanks for filling us in on the progress, Jason. 

JASON DAVIS: Of course. 

IRA FLATOW: Jason Davis, digital editor for The Planetary Society.

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