If a team of three young Israeli engineers gets its robot to the Moon first, it would win a $30 million jackpot – to be donated to science students.
Their robot will be about the size of a soda bottle and is expected to combine the best of Israeli technology from billion-dollar companies with cutting-edge research in academia. Their mission, if completed, could put Israel on the map as the third country to soft-land on the Moon.
Working under the non-profit moniker SPACE IL, the founders of this Israeli lunar project include CEO Yariv Bash, a computer and electronics engineer; COO Kfir Damari, a communications engineer; and CTO Yonatan Weintraub, a master’s student and graduate of NASA’s International Space University.
Enrolled in a global contest to reinvigorate space research, the Google Lunar X Prize (www.googlelunarxprize.org), the Israeli team aims to be the first on the Moon. However, the mission is also a social one: The men have pledged to donate all potential prize winnings — $30 million — to Israeli students as a way of encouraging them to study science.
Competing against 28 other teams from countries around the world including the United States, Canada and Chile, SPACE IL plans to land its lunar robot by the end of 2012. The robot will be expected to complete a 500-meter moonwalk and take various high-quality images and videos to be beamed back to Planet Earth.
Blue and white on the moon
The team is planning for its micro robot, about the size of a pop bottle, to hitch a ride on a commercial satellite launch — and for that it is calling on the Israeli business and academia worlds to help propel the vision of putting the blue-and-white Israeli flag on the Moon.
“The goal here is that we have a good opportunity to create a chance for Israel to get to the Moon so we can put the Israeli flag there,” says Weintraub. “We see the benefit for Israel’s image in the world. And the education [aspect] is important here, too. When [former US President John F.] Kennedy made his speech about the moon landing, he ignited the imagination of an entire generation. We want to do the same, to get kids to pursue careers in technology and science,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Weintraub first got fascinated about space studies where he was a preschooler. “I was looking for something very interesting to do and am lucky to be involved in a field where there are great opportunities to follow my passion.”
Now finishing his master’s degree in systems engineering through the space division at Israel Aerospace Industries, Weintraub studies how engineers should be thinking about satellites as a holistic system, and not as parts, “making it work in a synchronized fashion.”
This is what Weintraub was doing when he got wind of the international race to the Moon. Israeli-style, he and his two partners joined together at the last minute and scraped together the $50,000 entry fee. Industry experts in communication technologies such as Elbit, and academics from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University are supporting the SPACE IL crew in its quest to raise the estimated $10 million needed to put the robot on the moon.
Like the race to fly a plane across the Atlantic Ocean in the last century, the Lunar X Prize founders hope to attract some of the world’s greatest minds to change the face of space research, which until now has relied on costly government-funded initiatives. Only the United States and Russia have succeeded in landing on the Moon, and the US abandoned this project due to restrictive costs. No more than 10 percent of any Lunar X entrant’s research money can come from government funds.
Pushing outer-space limits
The Moon is a first step; research developed through the Lunar X contest is expected to advance the space industry in general.
Space research has the potential to help humanity understand more about the process of climate change, and to develop inventions that could be directly applied to medical devices, like better imaging technologies, diagnostics and even remote surgery, says Weintraub.
“When you build designs for space, you are pushing the limits of what technology can do, because the devices need to work by themselves,” he explains.
Developing for extreme environments like the Moon lends technology transfer to many areas, some yet unimagined. Just minimizing the size of everything pushes industries forward, he says.
“The first PC came to us as a result of the American space program, for the most part, and history has shown that these kinds of projects built by really talented people can create some high-end technologies that can be used on Earth afterwards,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
“When we land, it will be by far the smallest spacecraft to land on the moon, and it could show how missions to space can be done on an order of magnitude less than what NASA now spends. We want to break the glass ceiling, proving that we can do a lot for science with a lot less.”