Space race: Could India's fast-moving ship get to the moon before Israel does?
Both spacecrafts are expected to make a lunar landing in mid-April. But which one will get there first?
It wasn't that long ago that a team of Israeli mavericks came up with the idea to send a spacecraft the size of a small car to the moon. And the world watched as they launched it from Cape Canaveral in February. When it lands on the moon in April, Israel will become only the fourth country to ever achieve that feat – after Russia, the U.S. and China. Or will they?
With less than two weeks to go, there is talk that India could possibly beat Israel to the moon. It's a modern-day space race as India is set to launch their Chandrayaan-2 rocket to the lunar surface in April. What's more, their ship is taking a more direct route. Whereas the Israeli ship will have spent nearly two months floating its way to the moon, the Indian rocket's journey should only take about three days from launch to landing. So, depending on when they take off, it could be a nail-biter at the finish line.
At the moment, here are the important dates to keep in mind:
April 4 - This is when SpaceIL's ship – dubbed Beresheet, Hebrew for "Genesis" – will enter to the vicinity of the moon. The ship is expected to slow down as it starts to orbit the moon. The team at mission control in Israel has already done some trajectory corrections to ensure this "lunar capture" is successful. But anything is possible. Yonatan Winetraub, one of the three masterminds behind the SpaceIL mission, is cautiously optimistic. But he admits that, "If we fail to do that, there is a chance that we could miss the target and continue to infinity and beyond, as Buzz Lightyear said."
April 11 - This is the current date of when the SpaceIL ship is expected to land on the moon. As opposed to the launch which took place at night, the landing is expected to happen during the daylight hours in the U.S. When the Beresheet gets within about 16 feet of the lunar surface, it will shut off its engines and attempt to freefall – gently – onto the moon's surface.
April 16 - This appears to be the first available window for when the Indian ship could launch. The solar-powered Chandrayaan-2, which has been beset by delays, is hoping to land on April 19 – the date of the next full moon. Landing at that exact moment is critical for the solar-powered ship, which is hoping to take full advantage of the solar cycle. If they miss that date, they would likely wait until the next full moon, which is May 18.
"Although it seems like a competition, I think it is not. You're primarily fighting against physics or science. That's a common enemy," Winetraub told From The Grapevine. "When you dive deeper into what needs to be done to land on the moon, it's actually a lot of details and a lot physics that is involved. And a lot of things can go wrong. We witnessed this firsthand with our spacecraft that we had a few hiccups and the team in Israel was very talented and were able to overcome all the issues that we had. So that was quite a remarkable achievement for the team."
He added: "I guess, to some extent, I'm sure the Indians will also have all those issues that have come up during our mission. I think we're in the same boat in a certain sense. And if two missions can get to the moon, that's even better."
The three founders of the Israeli mission (from left to right) Yonatan Winetraub, Kfir Damari and Yariv Bash came up with the idea after a long night of drinking at a bar outside Tel Aviv. (Photo: Courtesy SpaceIL)
Even before landing on the moon, the Israelis are being recognized for their efforts. Google just announced that they will give SpaceIL $1 million as part of the inaugural Moonshot Award.
All of this is happening in the months leading up to this summer's 50th anniversary of the historic moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, which occurred on July 21, 1969. Winetraub, aware of the historical significance, has said SpaceIL is taking precautions not to disturb Aldrin's iconic bootprint on the lunar surface. "We won’t land next to Apollo missions," he told us. "The moon is big and there is enough space for everyone." The Indian ship is hoping to land on the opposite side of the moon than the Apollo and Israel missions.
Winetraub concluded our conversation with one final request. "Please ask your readers to keep their fingers crossed because we can use all the help that we can get." In the meantime, he said, "I've been practicing holding my breath."
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Related Topics: Space