SpaceIL, a team of Israeli engineers and educators, has secured a ride to the moon with an official launch contract for its unmanned spacecraft on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket contract was announced today (October 7) at a news conference in Jerusalem.

The exciting news was quickly shared by international media as the Israeli contract will now extend the competition’s deadline to the end of 2017.

“We kicked off this challenge in 2007 to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in space through low-cost, efficient access to the moon. But until now, all the tinkering has been on terra firma. SpaceIL’s securing of a verified launch contract by the December 2015 deadline keeps the competition open to all Google Lunar XPRIZE teams, who now have until the end of 2016 to secure their own launch contracts to head to the moon by the end of 2017,” reads the Official Google Blog.

The SpaceIL spacecraft will hitch a ride in a specially designed capsule on the Falcon 9 and separate itself from the launcher. It will then use navigation sensors to guide it to the Moon.

Artist’s rendering of SpaceIL’s newly-designed spacecraft
Artist’s rendering of SpaceIL’s newly-designed spacecraft

“Last year, we made significant strides toward landing on the Moon, both in terms of project financing and in terms of the engineering design and now, we are thrilled to finally secure our launch agreement,” SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman said in a statement.

SpaceIL (“IL” for Israel) was founded in 2010 by Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub just before the cutoff date set by Google Lunar Prize organizers. The three engineers simultaneously created a nonprofit organization by the same name with a broader educational goal of promoting science and scientific education in Israel.

Privman said in his statement that the official launch contract will help SpaceIL with this other mission of ensuring a new generation of scientists.

“This takes us one huge step closer to realize our vision of recreating an ‘Apollo effect’ in Israel: to inspire a new generation to pursue science, engineering, technology, and math,” he said.

SpaceIL is the only Israeli team taking part in the international Google Lunar X Prize competition. In 2007, there were 34 groups vying to be the first non- governmental team to accomplish three tasks of landing an unmanned spacecraft (without crashing) on the lunar surface; traveling 500 meters on, above, or below the surface of the Moon; and sending high definition video and pictures back to Earth. Today there are just 16 teams left in the running.

“Only three countries have ‘soft-landed’ a rover on the surface of the Moon: the United States, the former Soviet Union and China. Now, the notion of the small state of Israel being added to this exclusive list look more promising than ever,” said Privman.

“Congratulations to SpaceIL for getting to this phase, and to the other 15 teams: the new space race is on! Just like the astronauts, explorers and moonwalkers who came before you, you’re pushing the limits of what’s possible—let’s see who will make history,” reads Google’s blog.