A team of Israeli scientists has accelerated into first place in the race to send a privately-funded space mission to the moon.
Calling themselves SpaceIL, they have just signed an official launch contract with the organisers of Google's Lunar X Prize competition to send a rocket to the moon before the end of 2017.
The team plans to launch its robot into the Earth's orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and then use a hopping probe to actually land it on the moon's surface.
If Israel succeeds, it will not only be the country's first ever lunar landing, but also the first time a privately-funded mission of this kind has been completed.
Only China, the US and the former Soviet Union have managed to complete state-funded lunar landings throughout history.
The competition, which was set up by Google in 2007, aims to encourage private space missions and ultimately pave the way for affordable access to the moon. The deadline for taking part is 2017, and the prize is a cheque of $20m (£13m).
There are 15 other teams also in the running, but so far none of them has asked the competition organisers to assess and review its launch contract.
“We are proud to officially confirm receipt and verification of SpaceIL’s launch contract, positioning them as the first and only Google Lunar X Prize team to demonstrate this important achievement, thus far,” said Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of the competition.
The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated, representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately-funded organisation, and kicks off an exciting phase of the competition in which the other 15 teams now have until the end of 2016 to produce their own verified launch contracts. It gives all of us at X prize and Google the great pride to say, ‘the new space race is on!'