JERUSALEM – It is only the size of a dishwasher and weighs as much as a 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 mission, not least because of the moon’s many mountains and craters, said Yariv Bash, an electronic engineer and a co-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 said.
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 meters and transmit images and video back to Earth.
Thirty-three teams started out in the running and they are now down to 18, including from the U.S., 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. Most of the craft’s weight is from fuel and the 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 gray, 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 craft later this year, a process that should take 12 to 18 months.
SpaceIL has raised $21 million in donations out of a total budget of $36 million it believes is needed. It plans to use a crowd-funding event to secure the rest of the financing. The group estimates other teams’ budgets at $50 million to $100 million.
Unlike some of the other competitors in the space race, SpaceIL — which has a team of 250 people who are mainly volunteers — is a nonprofit organization and does not need to show investors a return.
“For $36 million, we are going to show the world that there is no longer this glass ceiling in outer space exploration,” Saat said.
Should SpaceIL win the prize, they plan to invest the money into new projects, which may include a probe to Mars.