Tiny Israel sets its sight on the moon

Tiny Israel sets its sight on the moon

NDTV's Science Editor Pallava Bagla alongside a dummy of Israel's maiden moon probe.

Tel Aviv:  Israel plans to do what only the world's biggest countries have so far managed to do- to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon as early as 2016. Till date, only Russia, USA and China have soft landed on the moon, and India hard landed its tri-colour using the moon impact probe in 2008 sent there along with Chandrayaan-1.

The washing machine-sized spacecraft that weighs 121 kilograms is being readied by a not-for-profit venture called SpaceIL which operates out of a small non-descript office  donated to it by Tel Aviv University.

The Israeli lunar probe had its genesis after the $ 30 million Google Lunar X Prize was announced as a competition which challenged non-state owned space agencies to land on the moon, send back photos, and move 500 meters on the surface of the moon. About two dozen global teams are racing to win the prize- SpaceIL reckons it's in pole position.

A young ex-NASA engineer Yonatan Winetraub and two of his friends conceived of the spacecraft in 2010 sitting in a bar in Israel and then used a Facebook page to promote the dream. Today, the dream has matured into a $ 36 million mission with 20 full time employees and 250 volunteers. Mr Winetraub told NDTV, "Our aim is to put the Israeli flag on the moon and to ignite the minds of youngsters." He adds that if they win the $ 20 million prize, they will donate the money for children's education.

Israel's highly developed space industry has backed the project by giving it support both through donations and in kind. The country's president Shimon Peres is the first volunteer for the proposed mission, and Israel hopes to be world leader in space technologies.

"It is a wonderful effort," exclaims Menachem Kidron, Director General of the Israel Space Agency adding, "A great bunch of students are doing a good job to try and see if Israel can be the fourth country in the world to land on the moon'. Around 40,000 school students have been associated with this project writ with 'national pride'.      

The yet to be named spacecraft will among other things take a 'selfie' of itself on the lunar surface and is also likely to carry out the first ever seed germination experiment on the surface of the moon under microgravity conditions. Mr Winetraub says Israeli school children will be asked to simultaneously replicate the experiment on Earth and the results will be compared.

The young team is currently looking for the right rocket launcher to piggy back this Israeli dream. The team from SpaceIL told NDTV they will seriously consider piggybacking their moon lander on India's Chandryaan-2 satellite that is likely to be launched in 2016 if they are able to negotiate a good deal with the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Indeed the 'start-up' nation, as Israel is often described, with its 7 million population is dreaming big of reaching the moon in such a short time.

(NDTV was a guest of the Israeli government, invited to participate in the 9th Ilan Ramon Annual International Space Conference in Tel Aviv)

Story First Published: January 31, 2014 00:15 IST

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