Israeli team signs first launch deal in Google moon race

With the deadline to win a $20 million first-place prize just two years off, pressure is mounting on the 16 rivals from around the world hoping to complete a privately-funded moon landing.

JERUSALEM (OCTOBER 7, 2015) (REUTERS) – The Israeli team competing in the Google-sponsored race to the moon announced on Wednesday (October 7) it has signed a rocket launch deal with California-based SpaceX, putting it at the front of the pack and on target for blast-off in late 2017.

With the deadline to win a $20 million first-place prize just two years off, pressure is mounting on the 16 rivals from around the world hoping to complete a privately-funded moon landing.

A week ago Silicon Valley’s Moon Express made an independent announcement that it signed a contract with Lockheed Martin-backed Rocket Lab, but Israel’s SpaceIL is the first team to have a launch agreement reviewed, verified and accepted by XPRIZE, the group overseeing the contest.

“The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately funded organisation and kicks off an entire phase of the competition in which 15 other teams now have until the end of 2016 to produce their own verified launch contracts. It gives all of us at XPRIZE and Google the great pride to say the new space race is on,” said XPRIZE President Bob Weiss.

The key hurdle was finding an affordable ride to outer space without government funding, said Eran Privman, CEO of SpaceIL.

Because his team’s spacecraft is much smaller than most competitors – it looks like a robotic, four-legged table, about 1.5 meters tall and wide – the SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher to outer space can carry 20 small satellites whose fares will help cover costs, Privman said. He added that other teams were trying to find such solutions.

SpaceX is a privately held company, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Much work remains. SpaceIL must manufacture hardware to fit the rocket and only then can it be shipped to California for launch, Privman said.

The mission is scheduled for late 2017, just before the contest deadline. Once exiting the rocket in space, the Israeli craft will make its journey to the moon.

“The mission is so complicated and so challenging that we shouldn’t look at our competitors. We should look only on the mission and ourselves and be focused to be the best solution for this mission. Once we will land on the moon we will look around and I’m sure that we see that we are the first,” Privman said.

To win, a privately funded team must place an unmanned spacecraft on the moon’s surface that can explore 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to earth.