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RU Hillel hosts head of Israeli space team
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RU Hillel hosts head of Israeli space team

An artist’s rendering of the lunar robot that SpaceIL hopes to land on the moon
An artist’s rendering of the lunar robot that SpaceIL hopes to land on the moon

team from Israel is shooting for the moon.

SpaceIL, a group formed by three young Israeli engineers while sitting in a bar, plans to launch a spacecraft in December 2017 that will land on the moon, making Israel the only country besides three superpowers — the United States, Russia, and China — to accomplish such a feat.

One of those founders, Yonatan Winetraub, came to Rutgers University Feb. 17 to speak about his participation in the International Google Lunar XPRIZE Competition, which will award $20 million to the first privately funded spacecraft that reaches the lunar surface. 

Another $5 million will be given to the second-place team; smaller prizes are available for such technical and scientific achievements as surviving the lunar night or visiting an Apollo landing site.

Winetraub, a doctoral candidate in biophysics at Stanford University, came to Rutgers in a program organized by Rutgers Hillel’s Center for Israel Engagement and cosponsored by Rutgers Honors College, the New Jersey-Israel Commission, the Israeli consulate in New York, and Dr. Lynne B Harrison, chair of the U.S. board of SpaceIL. 

Prior to his evening appearance, Winetraub had conducted a technical seminar for science and engineering honors students, faculty, and engineers.

Galit Peleg, Israeli consul for public diplomacy, said she took “great pride as an Israeli diplomat and Israeli citizen that we have this development of technologies and resources.”

Winetraub said he founded the nonprofit SpaceIL, not to make money, but to engage youngsters in science and engineering. If the group receives prize money, it will be donated to fund children’s science programs 

“We want to shift the spotlight back to science,” said Winetraub. “It’s important for Israel and a problem in the U.S. Kids don’t want to be engineers and scientists because it’s not cool. They want to be celebrities and rock stars. We want to inspire kids to build rocket ships or to cure cancer.”

Winetraub is confident that a small country like his can land a spacecraft on the moon.

“Moses, when he asked Pharaoh to ‘let my people go’ had to go back again and again. It is an integral part of being Jewish and being an Israeli. You don’t accept no as an answer, but learn to adapt,” he said.

Of the approximately 30 teams from around the world that submitted plans for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, 20 remain. Although Winetraub and fellow cofounders, Yariv Bash and Kfir Damari, were the last to submit a design — coming in just nine minutes before the deadline — the Israelis are the first to announce a launch date and contract.

SpaceIL signed a launch agreement in October for a private mission to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9, through the California-based company founded by Elon Musk.

To reduce costs, the spacecraft will share the ride to the moon with commercial satellites, which will be launched into Earth’s orbit.

Once the spacecraft lands on the lunar surface, it has to hop 500 meters, which Winetraub called “a risky maneuver,” and transmit back high-definition video, all of which require “crazy thinking.”

“If it’s crazy enough, it might just work,” said Winetraub. “You have to have faith people will be there with you. You need a lot of people working and helping.”

The spacecraft is set to launch Dec. 13, the first day of Hanukka, 2017.

Harrison, a scientist and entrepreneur from Verona, called the launch “a Hanukka miracle” and announced she was giving another $250,000 toward the project. She declined to say what she previously had given, but said 80 percent of contributions had come from Israelis. As allowed by the contest rules, 10 percent of the costs were allocated by the Israeli government.

Rutgers Hillel president Alex Hamilton said the event was exciting and had wide appeal, noting that “there are a lot of students here I’ve never seen before at any program.” 

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