|Photo Credit: SpaceFlight Insider|
San Diego, Calif., Dec, 12, 2016 - In 2010, Yonatan Winetraub, a citizen of Israel, sat down with two friends at a bar and said, “I have a crazy idea. Why don’t we be the first Israelis to land a spacecraft on the moon?” Six years later, the company they founded, SpaceIL, is making history as part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition aimed at placing an unmanned spacecraft on the moon's surface before the mission deadline of December 31, 2017.
Winetraub recently spoke at a UC San Diego Contextual Robotics Institute, Jewish Studies, San Diego-Israel Initiative and Science Studies lecture and discussion.
“The superpowers like the United States and Russia have landed on the moon, but the cost is astronomical – no pun intended,” began Winetraub. “Rockets are retailing at $100M, which is way too much for a small country. Partnering with Google is a way to drive the cost down.”
Still, the feat is not without its challenges. According to the rules of Google’s competition, the spacecraft will need to move 500 meters from where it lands and take a selfie. Most of the spacecrafts in the competition will be deploying rovers, but Winetraub’s team decided to hop.
Reigniting the engines is risky because the craft could tip over. Winetraub intends to analyze the risk level once they’ve landed, and then ask the public whether or not they should risk re-igniting the engines, or leave the spacecraft in place as a landmark.
Winetraub thinks it’s important to engage the public. He said that oftentimes, kids give their birthday allowance to this project, which motivates his team. If you take a child’s birthday allowance, you better get to the moon, he said.
Space IL is a non-profit and will donate any prize money from the competition to educate kids about outer space. Currently, SpaceIL reaches nearly a quarter of a million kids in Israel. “My hope is that someday, one Israeli kid will cure cancer because he saw SpaceIL products and got interested in science because of it.”
Moon Missions at UC San Diego
At the lecture, a number of students from UC San Diego’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) and startups that have spun out of the student organization were in the crowd, eager to ask questions. SEDS is working on designing a satellite to send into lunar orbit for a NASA competition.
“Using competitions to drive science is very effective in many aspects of our work,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the UC San Diego Contextual Robotics Institute. “The seminar by Winetraub is a great example of such a competition and is also great exposure to our students of research going on elsewhere in the world”
Winetraub encouraged the students by saying that getting a no is part of the process. “Sometimes you get a no from Physics – that’s the most difficult no to get. At first, we had a smaller design, but no matter how many ways we assessed it, we needed more fuel.”
When one student remarked that SEDS is using the same part in their design, Winetraub said, “Maybe we can compare notes later, because ours isn’t working.”