This Israeli Spaceship Resembles A Water Heater, But Scientists Plan To Blast It To The Moon

By Ben Wolford on March 7, 2014 4:27 PM EST

The co-founders of SpaceIL Bash, Damari and Winetraub stand next to their company's spacecraft process prototype near Tel Aviv. (Photo: Reuters)

The co-founders of SpaceIL Bash, Damari and Winetraub stand next to their company's spacecraft process prototype near Tel Aviv. (Photo: Reuters)

A team of Israelis is hoping to join an elite group of scientists who've landed a spacecraft on the moon. So far, only three countries — the United States, Russia, and China — has accomplished the feat, and they did it with the zealous backing of their national space agencies.

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Now comes "Sparrow," the team's craft. It looks like a water heater and stands as high as a small child (38 inches) and weighs about as much (88 lbs.) without fuel. The group behind it is a nonprofit founded by a few engineers, with much of its manpower derived from volunteers. And right now this little metal box is Israel's best hope for a piece of lunar history. "With a $36 million budget ... SpaceIL is proving that deep space exploration is not limited to those with multi-billion dollar budgets," the organization writes on its website.

The founders of SpaceIL recently unveiled a prototype of their spaceship in Tel Aviv and said they're hoping to land it — along with the nine computers and eight cameras on board — sometime in 2015. The sooner the better: Their launch is part of an international race to the moon sponsored by Google, and 18 teams, from Chile to Japan, are in the running. The first team to get there, travel a third of a mile, and send back high-definition pictures wins the grand prize of $20 million. It's called the Lunar XPRIZE.

Scanning through the dozens of teams competing for the prize is like flipping through Pixar renderings for a new space-themed movie. There are spacecraft that look like air conditioning units, Star Wars droids, and viruses. One California company, Moon Express, is building what the CEO calls "the iPhone of space" because it can execute multiple applications. Many of the contenders are working for hire like this, backed by commercial investors interested in the future of privatized space exploration. But SpaceIL is funded primarily through donations. "For $36 million, we are going to show the world that there is no longer this glass ceiling in outer space exploration," Daniel Saat, the head of business development, told Reuters.

The developers say they're close to confirming a site from which to launch their tiny spaceship. But the launch is the easy part; it's the landing they're worried about. Landing "is going to be either 15 minutes of horror or 15 minutes of fame, depending on the outcome," one of the engineers told Reuters. If it crashes, well, there goes $20 million. According to the Google rules, you have to move 500 meters on the lunar surface (Sparrow plans to hop the distance). But even if they don't win, they'll rest easy knowing that they helped spur a modern-day "Apollo effect."

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