An Israeli team has become the first to produce a "verified launch contract" as part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE. To win the competition, privately funded teams must land an exploratory robot on the moon by Dec. 31, 2017. SpaceIL's lunar effort would become the first private mission to the moon, as well the first from Israel.

The US$30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE was launched in 2007. By securing a verified launch contract by the December 2015 deadline, SpaceIL has kept the competition open to other teams, who now have until the end of 2016 to do the same. Once a team's robot has been landed safely on the surface of the moon, it must explore a distance of at least 500 m (1,640 ft) and transmit HD video and images back to Earth.

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SpaceIL says it was able to sign the launch agreement following an additional round of fundraising led by its two major contributors, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Family Foundation and Morris Kahn’s Kahn Foundation. Company CEO Eran Privman says the move follows major project financing and engineering design milestones achieved last year.

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

The SpaceIL team has already purchased launch services from Spaceflight Industries, with its payload in a designated capsule set to travel on the US firm's newly-purchased SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher in the second half of 2017. Once in position, the capsule will be released from the launcher and will automatically release the newly-redesigned Space IL spacecraft. The team says "advanced navigation sensors" will guide it to the lunar surface, with mission control room engineers able to step in remotely if required.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE winner will be awarded US$20 million, with the second team to complete the mission in for an award of $5 million. There will be additional prize-money awarded for other achievements, such as surviving the lunar night or visiting an Apollo landing site.

Sources: Google Lunar XPRIZE, SpaceIL