Israel leads in Google space race. Is a private moon landing imminent?

A frontrunner has emerged in a Google-run competition to land a private spacecraft on the moon before the end of 2017.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (2nd l.), Minister of Science, Technology and Space, Ofir Akunis (5th l.) and members of the Israeli team, SpaceIL, look at a model of an Israeli spacecraft, during a meeting in Jerusalem October 7, 2015. The Israeli team competing in a race to the moon sponsored by Google has signed a with California-based SpaceX for a rocket launch, putting it at the front of the pack and on target for blast-off in late 2017, officials said on Wednesday.

An Israeli spacecraft aboard an American rocket will take off for the moon in late 2017, becoming the leader in a space-race competition run by Google.

Officials from the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize competition, alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, announced at a press conference in Jerusalem Wednesday morning that SpaceIL, a nonprofit Israeli space engineering company, is the first to secure a launch contract in the competition. 

Now that SpaceIL has filed its launch contract, the other 15 teams in the competition have until the end of 2016 to ink launch deals and complete the mission by the end of 2017.

Google has put up $20 million in prize money to the winner in this race-to-the-moon scheme, and what may be the first-ever private lunar landing. The prize will go to the team that lands on the moon first, travels at least 500 meters on the lunar surface, and all the while sends back video and high definition pictures. The second-place finisher will receive $5 million, and cash prizes totaling another $5 million are available for surviving a lunar night (the equivalent of 14 days on Earth) and visiting an Apollo landing site.

The SpaceIL probe is a three-legged machine about the size of a washing machine. Though it has no wheels, SpaceIL designers plan to span the 500 meter distance by conserving enough fuel in its descent to "hop" along after touching down in order to complete the challenge. 

The mission of the Google Lunar X Prize – which began in 2007 – is to encourage entrepreneurship in space, and to usher in a new era where access to space is more affordable. Google is not the only Silicon Valley brand to extend its reach to space.  

Tech magnate Elon Musk's SpaceX – whose rocket will get the Israeli group's spacecraft to orbit – has been ferrying cargo to the International Space Station, though flights are currently grounded pending the investigation of a June 2015 explosion during a routine resupply mission to the ISS. Via e-mail, a company spokesperson told Popular Science, “We are fully confident that SpaceX will complete its investigation into the Falcon 9 mishap and implement corrective measures in order to return to flight in a couple of months.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced in September that his private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, will take over a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. to develop rockets, with neighbors Boeing and SpaceX less than a mile away. 

NASA concluded in a study published in July that private partnerships with space companies saved taxpayers and the under-funded agency nearly 90 percent of what it would have cost if a similar mission to the ISS depended solely on NASA, instead of companies like SpaceX. The public-private model allows the private sector to innovate, attract investors, put commercial practices to use, and bring ideas to bear without government oversight, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. 

Google's challenge for the moon is a difficult one. Only three countries have made a soft landing on the lunar surface: the US, the Soviet Union, and China. 

"The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated," X Prize Vice Chairman and President Bob Weiss said. "It gives all of us at X Prize and Google the great pride to say, 'The new space race is on!'"

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