SpaceIL, the Israeli non-profit organization behind Israel’s lunar mission earlier this year, was awarded the first-ever Moonshot Award of $1 million by the XPrize competition in a ceremony on Sunday night in Los Angeles.
XPrize, which previously partnered with Google for the now-defunct Google Lunar XPrize competition, first announced that SpaceIL would be the recipient of the award in April, hours after SpaceIL’s Beresheet (Hebrew for “Genesis”) spacecraft crash-landed on the moon as it tried to complete the final leg of its journey.
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Beresheet was launched successfully on February 22, riding piggyback on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It orbited the Earth and then the moon, traveling 6.5 million km before attempting its doomed landing. Initial data suggested that at just mere meters from the lunar surface, a technical glitch triggered a chain of events that caused the main engine of the spacecraft to malfunction, making it impossible to stop Beresheet’s velocity. Beresheet overcame the issue by restarting the engine, but it was too late and the spacecraft crashed into the moon.
The mission dashed Israel’s hopes of becoming the fourth country in the world (after Russia, China, and the US) to complete a controlled moon landing, but it still broke ground on lunar initiatives. It was a largely privately-funded moon mission, operating on a relatively modest budget (for a space mission) of approximately $100 million. Beresheet was also the smallest spacecraft ever built, by the smallest team to ever build a spacecraft, and traveled the largest distance to the moon.
SpaceIL’s mission was privately funded by philanthropists, including its president, Israeli-South African entrepreneur Morris Khan, but received some government funding including $2 million from the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology.
Israel’s lunar journey enthralled observers, with the Beresheet spacecraft producing a number of unforgettable selfies and images. Its much-anticipated landing on April 11 was watched live by many across the world.
SpaceIL’s Beresheet spacecraft “made history – and inspired millions of people around the world – this year by becoming the first private spacecraft to ever reach and orbit the moon,” XPrize wrote on Sunday.
“SpaceIL’s mission not only touched the moon, it touched the lives and hearts of an entire world that was watching,” Peter H. Diamandis, executive chairman and founder of XPrize, said in a statement in April. “The legacy SpaceIL will have on the future of the space industry is significant. This team’s ability to build a lunar lander for $100 million and less than 50 engineers is remarkable, a leap forward towards affordable and accessible space exploration.”
The SpaceIL team received the prize on Sunday at the Visioneering Summit 2019, an event by XPrize that gathers “accomplished CEOs, world leaders, philanthropists, influencers and thought leaders who care about going from success to significance.”
“Beresheet’s journey to the moon, despite its difficult landing, is etched into our consciousness in Israel and the world as successful, ground-breaking and significant to the nature of future mission by humans to the moon,” SpaceIL has said.
The $1 million prize is far less than the $20 million offered by the then-Google Lunar X Prize competition challenging the world’s engineers to create and send the first private lander to the moon. That competition served as the inspiration for the Beresheet lander, initially conceived in 2011 as part of a dream by three young engineers – Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub – to take part in the contest.
Together they founded SpaceIL and partnered with Israel’s Aerospace Industries (IAI) to design and build the spacecraft. And although the contest ended on March 31, 2018 and the $20 million prize went unclaimed, SpaceIL decided to push forth and launch the lander that came to be known as Beresheet.
After the crash-landing, SpaceIL announced that it would launch a second moon mission with a Beresheet 2.0 spacecraft but quickly scrapped the plan to focus on “another, significant objective.” The details are not yet known.
Innovative tech and design
In July, Texas aerospace company Firefly Aerospace announced that Beresheet’s innovative design and tech will serve as the basis for its future lunar missions.
Firefly is set to build upon the Beresheet endeavor and create a new lunar lander based on the Israeli spacecraft’s blueprints as part of a NASA program to deliver science payloads to the surface of the moon. Firefly was one of nine companies selected by NASA to participate in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS).
NASA says the program is “one of the first steps toward long-term scientific study and human exploration of the Moon and eventually Mars.”
Firefly signed an Intellectual Property and Engineering Support agreement with IAI for technology based on its Beresheet lunar lander.
“IAI’s culture of engineering innovation and bold vision make our partnership a perfect solution for America as the nation realizes its return to the moon,” said Firefly CEO Dr. Tom Markusic at the time. “Having access to flight-proven lunar lander technology and the expertise of IAI engineers makes Firefly well placed to gain a foothold in the cislunar market.”
Shea Ferring, Firefly VP of Mission Assurance, said, “NASA and the US will greatly benefit from IAI’s next-generation lander design, leveraging extensive Beresheet lander design and flight operations experience.”
Ferring indicated that Firefly’s spacecraft would be dubbed “Genesis” after Beresheet and would deliver “a low-cost integrated solution for reliable lunar surface missions.”
In June, NASA released a photo of Beresheet’s crash site. The photo was taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) 11 days after the spacecraft crashed into the moon’s surface. NASA partnered with SpaceIL on key aspects of the mission.
And National Geographic recently added Beresheet to its moon map exploring 50 years of lunar visits. Its first such map was created in 1969 as the Apollo 11 mission closed in on its goal.
The new version of the map “uses a mosaic of some 15,000 images and detailed height measurements from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has surveyed the entire surface,” National Geographic wrote.
“The moon is peppered with probes and landers, the legacy of human efforts to explore it,” it said.