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A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches a Qatari satellite in Nov. 2018.
SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches a Qatari satellite in Nov. 2018.
GENESIS

SpaceX will launch the first private moon mission tonight

By Tim Fernholz

An Israeli spacecraft that could become the first privately built lander on the Moon is expected to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 8:45pm eastern time today (Feb. 21).

You can watch the launch, and an attempt at landing the reusable first-stage rocket booster a few minutes afterward, on SpaceX’s live stream:

The 1,322 lb (600 kg) lunar spacecraft, called Beresheet and built by the Israeli non-profit SpaceIL, will spend two months traveling to Earth’s nearest neighbor in space after it is deployed from SpaceX’s rocket. Then it will attempt to land on the lunar surface and transmit video and photography back to Earth, becoming the first privately designed spacecraft to do so.

Only three nations have sent robotic explorers to the lunar surface: The US, Russia and China. The spacecraft will carry a number of artifacts celebrating its home country, including a Hebrew bible inscribed on a metal disk the size of coin and a time capsule containing the Israeli Declaration of Independence and remembrances of a Holocaust survivor.

Still, the primary mission of tonight’s launch for SpaceX, just its second in 2019, is to put Nusantara Satu, a communications satellite built by the US company SSL for Indonesian telecom operator PT PSN, into orbit. The rocket, which includes a first stage that will be launching into space for the third time in eight months, is also carrying an experimental satellite for the US Air Force.

SpaceIL’s lunar leaders

SpaceIL was founded by three Israeli engineers and entrepreneurs, and received $100 million in financial backing from Israeli telecom billionaire Morris Kahn; Sheldon Adelson, the casino tycoon and right-wing political donor; and the Israeli Space Agency, among other donors.

Beresheet, named with the Hebrew word for the Old Testament book of Genesis, was originally conceived as an entry into the Google Lunar XPrize, a $30 million sweepstakes created in 2007 to incentivize teams all over the world to develop efficient technology for lunar landers. SpaceIL was one of the first competitors to win a launch contract, but delays ultimately led it to miss a contest deadline.

While the XPrize shut down last year after the technical challenges of getting to the Moon on the cheap proved too difficult to surmount in a timely fashion, a number of participants nonetheless plan to continue, relying on donations, corporate sponsorships and NASA’s nascent private market for lunar transport.

If Beresheet reaches the lunar surface in one piece, it will only have about two days of time to create images and take magnetic measurements: The vehicle lacks thermal shielding to protect it from the extreme temperature changes on the Moon, and will soon fail.

First of many?

Lunar exploration is expected to rise in the years ahead, thanks in part to the relatively recent scientific confirmation that water, a potentially exploitable resource, can be found at the lunar poles. China’s national space agency put the first lander on the far side of the Moon in 2018, and NASA says it would like to fly sensors to the lunar surface on private spacecraft as soon as this year.

Astrobotic, a US firm spun out of Carnegie Mellon University, has a 2021 mission to the lunar surface planned; iSpace, a Japanese company, will launch an orbiter in 2020; and Moon Express, another US firm, is in the advanced stages of planning its own lander. All were Lunar XPrize participants. For an idea of the challenge at hand, consider that Astrobotic says it will charge potential clients $1.2 million per kg of payload delivered to the lunar surface.

“We’re seeing the first step with transportation, over time we’re going to see resource extraction, and over time you’re going to be able to buy fuel…to use for spacecraft to go deeper and deeper into space,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told Quartz in 2018.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported that India had landed a spacecraft on the lunar surface; it has only sent exploration spacecraft to orbit the moon.

Tim Fernholz
Reporter
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