A rendering of the dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed to the moon. A rendering of the dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed to the moon. A rendering of the dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed to the moon. (Photo: SpaceIL)

Now boarding: The world's first private mission to moon just got a green light

Spurred on by the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a team of engineers is aiming for a moonshot.

In 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered the famous words: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Nearly 50 years later, advancements in space travel continue to amaze. Just today it was announced that the first privately funded mission to the moon is now on the horizon.

If all goes as planned, here's what we can expect: SpaceX, founded by tech entrepreneur and Iron Man inspiration Elon Musk, is already successfully sending ships into space. In 2017, his California-based company will be launching their Falcon 9 rocket. Hitching a ride will be several satellites and one historic dishwasher-size rover. Once in space, the tiny rover will disembark from the rocket and become the first privately funded spaceship to land on the moon. Up until now, the only machines to land on the moon have been owned by government agencies.

The rover is being built by SpaceIL, an Israeli team of engineers who are competing against 15 other groups for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. To win the $30 million, a privately funded team must successfully place an unmanned spacecraft on the moon’s surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high-definition video and images back to Earth, before the mission deadline of midnight on Dec. 31, 2017. All of the finalists are required to have a verified launch contract in hand by the end of 2016 to remain in the running.

With their confirmed launch aboard the SpaceX rocket, the Israeli team is the first and only team to have a verified launch on the books. Assuming their ship lands safely, they will become only the fourth country to ever land on the moon after the United States, Russia and China. The other 15 teams racing toward the deadline hail from Germany, Italy and Canada, among other nations.

Take an inside look at SpaceIL's lunar lander.Take an inside look at SpaceIL's lunar lander. (Photo: SpaceIL)

“The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately funded organization," Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPRIZE, said about today's news. "It gives all of us at XPRIZE and Google the great pride to say, ‘the new space race is on!’”

Google's SpaceIL team will have to be careful where it lands its spacecraft. NASA requests that any new visitors to the moon's surface steer clear of the six Apollo landing sites. To help protect those locations, there are movements afoot to make those landing sites historical landmarks or registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Below, SpaceIL's Ayelet Klein explains how the team is approaching the choice for the optimal lunar landing site:

It's been a blockbuster year for space news. Just in the past few months alone, a new Earth-like planet was discovered, NASA snapped unprecedented photos of Pluto, and water (water!) was found on Mars. Speaking of Mars, legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin – who accompanied Neil Armstrong on that historic first moon visit – revealed that he wants his legacy to not be for his moonwalks, but as an advocate for colonizing the Red Planet. Not to mention, a movie about an astronaut is currently the No. 1 movie in America.

Next week, the world's largest international space conference will convene in Jerusalem at the 66th International Astronautical Congress. The four-day event, which will host 2,000 scientific demonstrations, is being organized by the Paris-based International Astronautical Federation.

The theme for this year's event is "Space: The Gateway for Mankind's Future" and hopes to include such topics as how space exploration can be used as a tool for international cooperation and how to inspire the scientists of tomorrow. The keynote speaker will be none other than the second person on the moon, Buzz Aldrin.


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Related Topics: Science, Space