Israel sets sights on moon landing

Israel sets sights on moon landing

Will Israel become the next deep space exploration super power? Because of a private expedition to the moon, some are thinking about the possibility of the Jewish state joining the United States, Russia, China, India, and other countries in the exploration of space.

The SpaceIL lunar lander is a go for launch as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 toward the end of the year. If all goes well, the robotic lander, dubbed the Sparrow, will fly to the moon on a slow course that will gradually raise its orbit around the Earth before being captured by the moon’s gravity and hence to a landing on the lunar surface in the middle of February 2019.

ADVERTISEMENT

Once on the moon, Sparrow will take images and video and conduct measurements of the moon’s magnetic field.

NASA has signed an agreement with the Israeli Space Agency to include a laser refractor on the SpaceIL Sparrow. The American space agency has also arranged for the mission to use the NASA's Deep Space Network.  

Originally, the flight of the SpaceIL Sparrow was supposed to be a one-off mission, designed to create an “Apollo effect” to inspire Israeli youth to study STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and to put Israel on the map as a technological power. However, Israel Aerospace Industries, the prime contractor building the Sparrow, is already contemplating the commercial possibilities of a lunar lander, according to Space News.

Two hurdles must be overcome before IAI conducts its own mission to the moon, finding financing and customers. Israel has a version of NASA, the Israeli Space Agency, but as a recent article in Haaretz notes, it is chronically underfunded.

The ISA has done some good work on space technology development and Earth observation, both military and commercial, and has participated in the space missions of other countries. However, the Israeli Space Agency has yet to conduct its own space exploration mission. The ISA has an annual budget of $80 million, though that does not include funding for specific launch vehicles and satellites, which are paid for on a case-by-case basis.

The Israeli government could pay for follow-on missions to the moon. The Sparrow will cost in the range of $88 million, which should be well within Israel’s ability to pay for if it wants to.

Absent government funding, Israeli Aerospace Industries will have to search for private customers. If the flight of the Sparrow is successful, the IAI could make the case that it can fly payloads such as instruments and experiments relatively cheaply. The trick would be to gather enough customers willing to pay to put something on the moon to cover the cost of the flight, along with a little profit.

The problem of making missions to the moon pay has been faced by American companies such as Moon Express and Astrobotic. However, unlike IAI, both of those companies have possible access to NASA funding under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, part of the new push to return to the moon started by President TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE. Thus far, NASA’s commercial partnerships for lunar exploration are being reserved for American companies.

Still, if Israel Aerospace Industries can solve the problem of paying for missions to the moon, always more difficult than overcoming the technical problems, the company will have proved that the capacity to explore space has become “democratized.” With the United Arab Emirates planning a mission to Mars soon, some countries in the Middle East may transform from venues of conflict and tragedy to nations capable of inspiring the world. 

Indeed, with some of the Gulf Arab states making a kind of clandestine peace with Israel and starting to diversify their economies from oil into high tech, could joint Arab-Israeli space missions become possible? To be sure, many might find such a thing inconceivable after decades of conflict. Of course, peace between Israel and Egypt was the stuff of fantasy at one time, before Anwar Sadat’s outreach and the Camp David Accords.  

Indeed, during the Apollo race to the moon, the United States and the Soviet Union were the bitterest of enemies. Six years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts flew together on the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. Currently, despite numerous differences on Earth, America and Russia are partners on the International Space Station and may be also for deep space exploration.

Such joint undertakings in space would be to everyone’s benefit in the region and would constitute a stinging rebuke to terrorists and rogue states who are too invested in continuing war and bloodshed.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”