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Israel’s moon mission set to make space exploration history

Israel will become only the fourth nation to successfully land on the moon if its robotic spacecraft Beresheet touches down softly on Thursday.

A potential so-called hard landing will mean Israel joins a longer list of nations which have simply littered our primary satellite.

But unlike the successful American, Russian, and Chinese lunar missions before it – and even unlike the unsuccessful ones – the Israeli trip to the moon is principally a privately funded enterprise, launched by an organisation called SpaceIL.

On Thursday, the Beresheet robot will aim to land on the near-side of the moon, potentially marking the latest milestone in the growth of private enterprise in the space exploration sector.

After a two-month journey covering roughly four million miles (6.5m km) as it orbited the Earth at a steadily increasing distance until it fell to the gravitational pull of the moon, the culmination of the $100m mission will be a nervous affair.

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The spacecraft weighs 1,290lbs (585kg) and was built by Israel's non-profit venture SpaceIL alongside the state-owned defence contractor Israel Aerospace Industries.

A soft touchdown would rank alongside the successful landing and recycling of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, which have drastically reduced the cost of orbital launches, and notably the rocket that took Beresheet into space.

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Historically, space exploration, especially orbital launches which involve the spacecraft going high enough to complete an orbit of the Earth, has been so expensive and offered such uncertain returns on investment that it could only be funded by states.

When rocket technology was mature enough to get humans into orbit in the late 1950s, the space race between the US and USSR led to those rivals dominating the space launch scene, despite launch attempts from Japan, China, and European space agency nations.

But those launches came at considerable expense. During the height of the space race, NASA's budget stretched to more than 4.4% of the entire US federal government budget – compared to less than 0.5% in 2017.

It is difficult to establish comparable figures for Russia's space programme due to the multiple agencies involved and their military purpose meaning they were kept as state secrets, but the investment much have been equally considerable.

But the restrictive costs of launches are in steep decline.

Data analysis by Sky News shows that, since the 1990s, the private sector has driven investment in space exploration while states decreased the number of launches they were undertaking.

The high number of launches before this period was certainly driven by international competition.

Public funding for orbital launches rapidly shrank following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, although private sector launches didn't outnumber Russian efforts until near the end of the millennium.

The growing private sector in space exploration can trace its original successes to Arianespace, a multinational company based in Paris which became the world's first commercial launch service provider in 1980.

The French multinational currently has the highest number of orbital launches among private space companies with 261, but also operates with very few competitors – only Starsem in France accounts for the region's other 20 launches.

This compares with a much more diverse market in the US, where 17 companies (compared to three in Russia and two in Japan) have accounted for 514 launches.

The United Launch Alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin – which had a monopoly on private US military launch contracts for more than a decade – counts 131 launches to date (Boeing: 60, Lockheed: 71), while Elon Musk's SpaceX accounts for 68 more.

Some of those launches were paid for with public sector contracts, but real public launch rates have only seen any recovery since the early 2000s courtesy of China beginning to increase its investment in space exploration following a restructuring of its space agency.

Over the last 10 years, China's National Space Administration has been the only state agency to significantly increase its number of orbital launches.

Yet even in the socialist republic of China, private capital has been sought for commercial space exploration.

A report in technology magazine Quartz in March noted a number of start-ups seeking to enter the launch market in China, although no state contracts have yet been confirmed.

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