First Private Moon Lander Heralds New Lunar Space Race

First Private Moon Lander Heralds New Lunar Space Race
February 21 18:08 2019 Print This Article

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN – 21 February 2019 – Elizabeth Gibney – Israeli firm is sending a privately built craft to the Moon – and leading a fresh era of exploration.

Israel is heading for the Moon—and a lunar milestone. If all goes well, a lander scheduled to launch on 21 February will become the first privately funded craft to land on the Moon. The feat seems set to kick off a new era of lunar exploration — one in which national space agencies work alongside private industries to investigate and exploit the Moon and its resources.

The craft, named Beresheet—‘in the beginning’ in Hebrew—was built by an Israeli non-profit company called SpaceIL that raised US$100 million for its mission, much of it through philanthropic donations. Beresheet will lift off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and should reach Mare Serenitatis, a basaltic plain on the northern hemisphere of the Moon, in April (see ‘Moon shot’). There, it will study the presence of magnetism in lunar rocks, a phenomenon that is puzzling given the satellite’s lack of a global magnetic field (see ‘What will Beresheet do on the Moon?’).

The mission is not wholly private, because it involves government partners. And although the craft is little more than a demonstrator—its scientific mission is simple and the lander is expected to last just two days on the surface—the mission is symbolically important. It would be Israel’s first Moon mission, as well as the first privately backed craft to ‘soft land’ on the Moon’s surface—until now, the preserve of an elite club of the national space agencies of the United States, China and Russia.

SpaceIL’s success would be an important milestone, says Robert Böhme, chief executive and founder of PTScientists in Berlin, a private company also shooting for the Moon. “It would be a big proving point, because right now the only one with soft landing capability is China,” he says.

The Israeli success could herald a crop new of landers and flip the business model for lunar exploration to one in which private firms essentially sell a delivery service. Customers could buy space on landers to ferry their cargo—from scientific instruments built by space agencies and universities to telecommunications firms’ technology and urns from companies promising to put loved ones’ ashes on the Moon. In the long term, firms might want to go to the Moon to mine for water, which could be turned into fuel to power rockets or sustain a lunar settlement.

Lunar scientists are also set to benefit from a commercial fleet of landers. Aside from China’s Chang’e-4 craft — which landed last month and is the Moon’s only active robotic resident—the last surface missions were in the late 1970s, says Barbara Cohen, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This generation of lunar scientists hasn’t been able to do anything robotically,” she says. “We’re really excited.”

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