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Students Get Inspired By Israel’s Mission to the Moon

Paramus—SpaceIL, an Israeli non-profit organization, is attempting to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon by the end of 2015 as part of a contest called the Google Lunar XPrize competition. On a recent afternoon, SpaceIL unveiled its mission to 500 students from Frisch, Ma’ayanot, and several other schools, who had come together to share in the excitement of space exploration.

The visit from SpaceIL was part of the organization’s visit to the United States to march in the Celebrate Israel Parade in Manhattan. As part of its mission, the group presented at various schools in the tri-state area. SpaceIL also shared its goals with local elementary school students and at Frisch’s first annual Science, Research & Engineering Symposium, organized by teacher and engineering head Rifkie Silverman.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE competition is the largest international incentive-based prize of all time, and, according to publicity documents, aims to do something humanity has never accomplished: The safe landing of a private craft on the surface of the moon. The competition aims to create a new “Apollo” moment for this generation and to spur continuous lunar exploration. SpaceIL is the only group from Israel that has entered the competition.

For the actual competition, each team is required to build a robot that can go to the moon and travel 500 meters (1640 feet) on or under the surface of the moon, sending back two “mooncasts.” The entry fee? $50,000. The prize? Twenty million dollars for first place, with a lesser prize of $5 million for the second place finisher. Of course, if you don’t come in the top two, all is not lost: Yariv Bash, SpaceIL’s co-founder, says that “if you find an alien, you can keep it.”

The presentation began with a video showing the Israeli accomplishments in science throughout the ages, before saying that landing a spacecraft on the moon was next.

Bash, an engineer a well as the co-founder, then spoke about SpaceIL and its mission. He shared that his odyssey began when he heard about the competition and posted about it on his Facebook wall. He wrote, in Hebrew, “Who wants to go to the moon?”

A couple of engineering friends joined him, although they first weren’t sure he was serious. Their staff swelled from three at the competition’s start all the way to over 250 today.

Bash reported that they were the last team to sign up, completing their entry registration on the last day they could. While it wasn’t ideal because the other teams had more time to prepare and build, all was not lost: At least they knew what the other teams were doing badly and what they were doing well and could apply that knowledge to their own project to avoid the pitfalls encountered by their opponents.

Bash said that there are three steps to sending a spacecraft to the moon: Get into orbit, navigate to the moon, and decelerate and land softly on the moon.

The biggest challenge is the limited amount of room on the vehicle. It’s only about three hundred pounds and is the size of a dishwasher with legs. To combat this lack of space, SpaceIL has to create technologies that serve multiple purposes. An achievement they are especially proud of is an optical navigation system to adjust the trajectory of the spaceship to ensure that it gets captured by the moon’s gravity. The optic navigation system uses many cameras to take pictures of the moon and stars. Those pictures are put together to get a complete picture of the whole area that can then be used to figure out where to go. It’s also very useful because it is a lot smaller and more compact than previous navigation models.

Another way that SpaceIL is paving the road to the future is in costs. Its budget is $36 million, which while it seems like it’s a sizable amount of money is a fraction of what is generally accepted as the necessary amount of money to send a robot into space—anywhere from $500 million to a few billion dollars. If SpaceIL can show the world that space is no longer limited to those with billions of dollars of disposable income, then it opens up many possibilities commercially and beyond, Bash said.

Jewish philanthropist and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $16.4 million to the SpaceIL in April. The project has been backed primarily by philanthropists.

Still, getting into space is not the only goal of SpaceIL; in fact, it may not even be most important goal. Bash says that this project is “much bigger than just landing on the moon.” To him, it’s “all about making an impact. If [they] land and no one hears about it then it’s as if [they] didn’t land.” Bash said he wants to “make people proud of Israel” and to “impact people.”

In impacting people he has succeeded, including those at Frisch. Says freshman Robin Tassler, “I had not heard anything about this program before, so having the founder come and speak to us about it and its importance was very cool.”

Jacob Brennan, another freshman at Frisch, said, “The SpaceIL team is doing something more than just flying to the moon. They are…making a huge impact on the world.”

Israel, represented by SpaceIL, seeks to join only three other countries—Russia, America, and China—in a prestigious club of nations who have landed on the moon. That would be a very big deal. Frisch sophomore Oren Mendelow says, “It [is] amazing that Israel is a leading competitor in this challenge,” while sophomore Benji Schwartz adds, “That’s the power of Israel.”

In a fun moment for the high school crowd, a student raised his hand toward the end of the presentation and said that if one scrambles the letters of SpaceIL, it spells the word “special,” which, as he noted, is exactly what this project is.

Shmuel “Sushi” Kaplan is a JLBC intern. Follow his blog at sushionsports.wordpress.com.

By Shmuel “Sushi” Kaplan

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