Organizers of an international competition sponsored by Google to send a privately-funded spacecraft to the moon announced on October 7 that a team of Israeli engineers is the first to advance in the contest.

The Israeli nonprofit group SpaceIL has signed a contract with American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX to send an unmanned spacecraft into lunar orbit, which is the first step a team must take toward landing on the moon and earning the $20 million grand prize. The launch is expected to occur in the second half of 2017.

Google’s contest is intended to encourage private industry to produce new technologies to reach the moon at lower costs than what governments have spent in previous lunar expeditions.

“We wanted the everyday man and woman to know that they could be innovators. They could literally build a spacecraft at their university or in their garages,” said Chanda Gonzales, senior director of the Google Lunar XPRIZE contest. “You don’t have to be NASA.”

Gonzalez said that the Israeli team is the first of 16 competition groups to secure a contract with a launch provider and agree to the technical and financial details with contest organizers.

The other competitors include groups and private companies from the United States, Malaysia, Italy, Japan, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, Canada, Chile, and India.

Gonzalez also said that two US companies, Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Moon Express, recently indicated that they secured launch contracts, but they have yet to submit their agreements to contest organizers for approval.

In order to win the contest, competitors must land a rover on the moon, and then the rover must travel 500 meters, or about 1,640 feet, and broadcast high definition video and images back to Earth.

Instead of creating a robot that separates from a lander and travels along the moon’s surface, SpaceIL’s spacecraft would land on the moon and then launch back in the air to land 500 meters away. SpaceIL revealed its spacecraft design at a conference on October 7 at Israeli president Reuven Rivlin’s home.

Contestants have until the end of 2016 to obtain an approved launch contract. The lunar mission has to be completed by the end of 2017.

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