Thus far three countries have landed on the moon, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, more recently, China. Only the United States has landed astronauts on the lunar surface, during the Apollo program of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The next country to land on the moon may be the State of Israel or, at least, a private team of Israelis.

SpaceIL is one of the many teams that is competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. The competition will award $20 million to the first team to land a robotic probe on the lunar surface, take a number of high definition images and videos, and move from the initial landing site, at least, half a kilometer’s distance.

The second team to accomplish the feat will get $5 million. The winning team must prove that it has garnered at least 90 percent of its support from private sources.

SpaceIL is closer than most of the competition to flying to the moon in that it already has a launch contract. The Israeli probe will share Space on a Falcon 9 in late 2017, if everything goes right, and will in short order fly to the moon, taking two months before landing on the lunar surface. The probe will take a single rocket assisted hop to travel the half of kilometer necessary to fulfill the requirements of the competition.

Moon Express, an American team, also has a launch contract. Another American team, Astrobotics, is putting together a launch that will include a number of customers, including other Google Lunar X Prize competitors.

Top Videos of the Day

At first glance, Israel seems an unlikely country to get into lunar exploration. But, the Jewish state has become a technological powerhouse, with plenty of high-tech startups and a highly educated workforce.

The SpaceIL effort has become something of a national project in Israel, a source of inspiration and pride. If the mission succeeds and a spacecraft with the Star of David broadcasts images and video from the moon, the effect in the Middle East will be profound. While Israelis will rejoice much as Americans did when Neil Armstrong made that first footstep, Israel’s enemies will likely be displeased.