The first private lander Moon announces a new race in the lunar space

Israel is heading for the Moon – and a lunar landmark. If all goes well, a lander scheduled for launch on February 21 will become the first privately funded aircraft to land on the moon. The feat seems set to pave the way for a new era of lunar exploration: national space agencies are working alongside private industries to study and exploit the Moon and its resources.

The craft, called Beresheet – "in the beginning" in Hebrew – was built by a non-profit Israeli company called SpaceIL, which raised US $ 100 million for its mission, much of it through philanthropic donations. Beresheet will take off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is expected to reach Mare Serenitatis, a basaltic plain in the northern hemisphere of the moon, in April (see "Plan of the Moon"). There, he will study the presence of magnetism in the lunar rocks, an astonishing phenomenon given the absence of the global magnetic field of the satellite (see "What will Beresheet do on the Moon?").

The mission is not totally private because it involves government partners. And although the craft is little more than a demonstrator – its scientific mission is simple and the lander should only last two days on the surface – the mission is symbolically important. This would be the first Israeli mission on the moon, as well as the first private craft to land on the surface of the moon – until now, reserved for an elite club of US national space agencies, China and Russia.

The success of SpaceIL would be a milestone, said Robert Böhme, managing director and founder of PTScientists in Berlin, a private company also filming for the Moon. "It would be a great demonstration point, because at the moment, the only country with a soft landing capacity is China," he said.

Israeli success could herald a new wave of landers and turn the lunar business model into a model in which private companies would essentially sell a delivery service. Customers could buy space on landing gear to transport their cargo – from scientific instruments built by space agencies and universities to the technology of telecommunication companies and corporate urns promising to throw the ashes of their loved ones on the moon. In the long term, companies may want to go to the moon to look for water, which could be used to power rockets or maintain a lunar settlement.

Lunar scientists should also benefit from a fleet of commercial landers. In addition to the Chinese ship Chang & # 39; e-4 – which arrived last month and is the only active robotic resident of the Moon – the last surface missions took place in the late 1970s, says Barbara Cohen, specialist in Planetary Science at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "This generation of lunar scientists has not been able to do things robotically," she says. "We are really excited."

XPRIZE legacy

SpaceIL will be the first former competitor of the late Google Lunar XPRIZE to launch his mission on the Moon. However, at least five companies that participated in the competition plan to launch missions by the end of 2021. All aspire to become the first fully commercial mission to achieve it (see 'Commercial Actors').

The Google Lunar XPRIZE deserves recognition for the popularity of the moon, said Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express at Cape Canaveral, another former competitor. The ambitious project launched in 2007 to create affordable commercial access to the Moon. He offered $ 20 million to the first team to put a gear on the surface and perform basic tasks. The contest was canceled in January 2018 when none of the participants seemed ready to meet the March launch deadline. At the time, the XPRIZE Foundation in Culver City, California, attributed this failure to the challenges faced by the teams in raising funds, as well as technical and regulatory challenges.

The landscape of private Moon Landers has changed dramatically since: thanks to lower launching costs, a growing number of customers willing to pay for a trip to the moon, and renewed government support for such efforts, the companies announced. .

SpaceIL's main place in this new space race rests largely on its funding, Richards said.

Three young engineers founded the company in Tel Aviv in 2011, but it received $ 43 million in injections from Morris Kahn, a South African telecommunications billionaire who is currently the president. The mission turned into a national project involving the Israeli space agency – which paid $ 2 million – and Israel Aerospace Industries in Lod, the main aerospace and satellite company in the country that built the aircraft. The project has also reduced costs by hitching up the Falcon 9 and other cargo: an Indonesian satellite and, according to reports, a small satellite for the US Air Force.

A man wearing safety gear uses an automated system to hoist a golden paper landing gear into a container.

The Beresheet business before launch.Credit: Tomer Levi / SpaceIL

Government support

The growing interest of governments wishing to return to the moon also stimulates the new lunar economic model.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are planning to fund private companies to send scientific instruments to the lunar surface, in the hope that these agencies will eventually become part of the many customers using this service.

NASA has turned its gaze to the moon after the US presidential directive of 2017. The goal of this agency is to provide a training ground for Mars missions and to study lunar resources likely to support a human presence on the moon, for example by extracting oxygen and hydrogen. for fuel, as well as purely scientific studies.

To achieve these goals, the agency launched the CLPS (Commercial Slave Payload Payload Services – CLPS) program worth $ 2.6 billion in 2018. In November, NASA selected nine consortia deemed eligible to send his payloads to the Moon. Each is led by a US company and includes several partners to cover launch, landing and operations capabilities. Scientists have until February 27 to submit to NASA proposals for instruments or technologies that could constitute a set of payloads intended to be shipped for commercial purposes.

This program aims to "revive" a new private industry of landing on the moon, says Richards, and reflects NASA's efforts more than a decade ago to encourage the development of specialized commercial enterprises. in spaceflight such as SpaceX. The agency is now one of the many customers who use these commercial services to send goods into space.

What will Beresheet do on the moon?

Beresheet is a light vehicle – 180 kilograms without fuel – that will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It will disengage from the rocket 30 minutes after takeoff and enter Earth orbit. Then, over the next two months, the LG will use engine burns to travel more and more elliptical loops until it is close enough to the Moon to be captured by lunar gravity.

Then comes the difficult part: control a distant spacecraft in a complex gravitational field and dampen the LG so that it arrives intact.

The main goal of Beresheet's two-day scientific mission is to study the magnetic fields of the lunar rocks that she traverses in the last few minutes before landing and measuring magnetism since the surface, says Oded Aharonson, a planetary scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who leads the international collaboration for the science mission.

Scientists will compare rock magnetic field data with their age, suggested by their geology, to determine if the Moon already had a liquid metal core that could have magnetized the rocks.

Beresheet will also return images and videos, but it is unlikely that his previous plan will be to "jump" to a new location, which would have been necessary to win the late Google Lunar XPRIZE.

Railway to the moon

According to Böhme, NASA will probably choose dozens of payloads under the CLPS program, giving several companies the chance to target the moon, probably from 2020. "We are creating the railroad, a DHL delivery service. to the moon, "says John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is another company that hopes to land the first lunar trading device.

For scientists, the model has advantages and disadvantages, says Cohen. At first, the landing gear would not be sophisticated and would have neither scoops nor exercises to collect samples, nor would it be able to survive the cold lunar night. And scientists would not necessarily have access to the machine's "maintenance" data, which can be useful for calibration. But the "big plus" is that the large number of landing opportunities on the moon will allow more researchers to get involved and carry out riskier projects, she said. declared.

Many former XPRIZE companies from around the world are eligible teams to bid on SPDP contracts, although a number of them also include independent launches outside the SPDP. program (see "Commercial Actors"). Among them, the Tokyo-based start-up ispace and TeamIndus in Bengaluru, India, have canceled a planned launch in 2018. TeamIndus aims to launch missions to the Moon "several times" over the next three to five years said Sheelika Ravishankar, director of outreach for the company. (The Indian Space Research Organization also hopes to make its first controlled landing on the Moon this year, with its Chandrayaan-2 mission.)

Commercial actors

Several private companies that competed for the Google Lunar XPRIZE are still filming for the Moon. These companies develop lunar earth stations on which they can sell space for payloads. Most have signed contracts for launching landers by 2021 and many have been selected to deliver NASA-funded instruments and technologies to the moon as part of the Lunar Payload Services Commercial Program. 39; agency.

first name

Details Lander

Planned missions

Funds raised


Astrobotic (US)

Peregrine Lander weighs 290 kg without fuel. The payload is 35 kg; 265 kg for subsequent missions.

Selected by NASA as eligible to deliver lunar payloads. Missions could begin in 2019. Also set the launch date with United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, for 2021.



ispace (Japan)

The HAKUTO-R undercarriage weighs 350 kg without fuel; Payload of 30 kg, including a 4 kg motorcycle.

Plans to launch an orbiter in 2020 and a lander in 2021 on SpaceX rockets. Involved in the Draper team, selected by NASA as eligible to deliver lunar payloads from 2019.

$ 94.5 million

~ 70

Masten Space Systems (US)

The LG XL-1 weighs 675 kg without fuel; Payload of 100 kg.

Selected by NASA as eligible to deliver lunar payloads. Missions of 2021.


~ 20

Moon Express (US)

The LG MX-1E weighs 250 kg with fuel; Payload of 30 kg. The modular undercarriages will weigh up to 500 kg in future missions.

Selected by NASA as eligible to deliver lunar payloads. Missions could start in 2019.

> 40 million dollars

~ 50

PTScientists (Germany)

ALINA Lander weighs 1,000 kg without fuel. The payload is 200 kg, including two mobile.

Project to launch payloads on a SpaceX rocket in 2020. Second mission planned in 2021. Participation in a team selected by NASA as eligible for the delivery of lunar payloads from 2019. Also under contract with the Agency European space to explore the possibility of creating a lander for a lunar exploitation mission. around 2025.

Prepare to raise venture capital

~ 70

SpaceIL (Israel)

Beresheet Lander weighs 180 kg without fuel. Undisclosed mass.

Launch of the LG on February 21. No public projects for other missions.

100 million dollars

~ 40

TeamIndus (India)

The Z-01 undercarriage weighs 210 kg without fuel; Payload of 30 kg.

Participation in ORBITBeyond team, selected by NASA to be able to deliver lunar payloads from 2019. Explore independent launch contracts for 2022-2024.

> 30 million dollars

~ 70

European vision

ESA has begun to consider returning to the moon ahead of NASA and also hopes to improve the fate of new space companies.

The agency plans to hold a single lander mission in 2025 to demonstrate the feasibility of collecting water or oxygen from the ground at the lunar poles.

Last month, ESA called on PTScientists (created in direct response to XPRIZE), ArianeGroup rocket manufacturers in Paris and the aerospace company Space Application Services in Brussels to explore the viability of such a project. mission.

Mr Böhme said the agency hoped to get about 250 million euros ($ 283 million) from the member states that it would need in November, something he is confident that it will materialize. because of the international momentum of lunar exploration and the relatively small size of the mission.

Unlike the CLPS program, for which commercial partners will cover start-up costs, ESA would be responsible for the launch and operations of the mission, as well as the available space on the LG, Böhme explains. The operations would cost about 130 million euros, he said, and the remaining 120 million would fund the development of scientific payloads. But these payloads would only account for half of the LG's capacity, so PTScientists could sell the rest of the space to other customers – for profit. "It's a good business," says Böhme.

Verification of reality

Today, Richards estimates that a mission on the moon could cost about $ 50 million, half of what it cost 10 years ago. The economies of scale for subsequent missions could reduce the price of individual payloads to a few hundred thousand dollars, he says.

Despite companies' success in leveraging investments and securing their clients, some experts remain skeptical that in the long run there will be many buyers beyond space agencies.

For example, it is unclear whether there are customers – other than governments – who would like moon-derived rocket fuel. According to Jonathan McDowell, space historian and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the only cost-effective use could be to further fuel travel in the solar system. For example, to extract asteroids. It could be decades.

"What are they going to get – anything but advertising? That's the missing element that keeps me in mind, says McDowell.

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