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Going where no Israeli has gone before

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The SpaceIL spacecraft at the Israel Aerospace facility in Yahud. (Flash90 photo)

Albert Einstein foresaw as early as 1923 that a future Jewish state would have to rely on science and technology to thrive in a desolate and arid land. Today, that vision has become a reality.

The results of this are nowhere more evident than in the domain of space. Israel is among a handful of countries that has developed and launched satellites, starting with the AMOS satellite buses. (The eighth AMOS was commissioned in 2018.) The range of capabilities of Israeli satellites are impressive:

• The Earth Resources Observation Satellite (EROS) is a series of commercial Earth observation satellites designed and manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), with optical payload supplies produced by another Israeli company, Elbit Systems. The satellites are owned and operated by the Israeli corporation ImageSat International.

• Ofek-11 is part of a family of satellites designed and built by IAI for the Israeli Ministry of Defence. The latest in the series, the 11th, was launched in September 2016 from the Palmachim Airbase in Israel using a Shavit rocket, a space vehicle produced by Israel to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit.

• Ultrasat (Ultraviolet Transient Astronomy Satellite) is a proposed astronomical satellite mission, whose wide-angle UV telescope will detect and monitor transient astrophysical phenomena in the near-ultraviolet spectral region. A joint American-Israeli proposal for the project was submitted to NASA by a team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Weizmann Institute of Sciences and IAI. It’s scheduled to launch in 2021 or 2022.

Israel has also become an indispensable participant in other international space joint ventures. Jerusalem now partners with NASA and the European and Russian space agencies to build satellites, and satellite components, for scientific and civilian uses. NASA’s Spirit Mars rover used an algorithm developed by Technion. Likewise, a solar radiation model for the Martian surface was developed by Tel Aviv University and used for the design of the photovoltaic array for both the Pathfinder and Spirit rovers. (The feasibility of using solar power on the surface of Mars was established by the same university.) Moreover, Israel and the European Energy Centre co-operated in the development of the Galileo project, a global satellite navigation system that cost more than 10 billion euros ($15 billion).

The Samson program, a joint space venture with Holland, is paving the way for the use of cold-gas propulsion, which would enable the development of nano-satellites. Meanwhile, the Italian and Israeli space agencies’ Shalom endeavour, which is primarily focusing on the hyperspectral observation satellite, will play an important role in environmental protection, agriculture and research.

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Israel is also working with the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency to develop new space technologies for the JUICE Explorer’s mission to visit the Jovian system, with a focus on studying three of Jupiter’s Galilean moons: Ganymede, Callisto and Europa, all of which are thought to have significant bodies of liquid water beneath their surfaces, making them potentially habitable. One of the most promising new areas of space propulsion where Israeli nanotechnologies are making headway relates to Israel’s project with the European Space Agency, researching revolutionary electric propulsion systems designed to make space travel greener.

And, not surprisingly, Israel will be landing on the Moon in 2019, thanks to SpaceIL, a privately funded venture supported by global Jewish philanthropists like Morris Kahn and Montreal’s Sylvan Adams (other stakeholders include NASA, SpaceX, the Weizmann Institute, the Israel Space Agency and Bezeq). As SpaceIL CEO Ido Anteby told a news conference in the Israeli town of Yehud in November, the probe – about two metres in diameter, with a launch weight of just 585 kg – will be the smallest ever to land on the Moon. It is scheduled for liftoff at Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Feb. 13.

“This contribution to strengthening the Israeli space program, and encouraging education for excellence and innovation among the younger generation in Israel, is the best gift I could have asked for,” Adams said during SpaceIL’s press conference in Yehud, where the spacecraft is being assembled. “I believe that sending the first Israeli spacecraft to the Moon will inspire Israeli school children to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies and think about space exploration, and especially to believe that everything is possible.”

Similarly, Kahn said he hoped the mission would create an “Apollo effect” for the next generation in Israel – a reference to the enthusiasm for STEM fields that was triggered by Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moonwalk.

For a country that had very little to offer just 70 years ago to be on the threshold of joining the most exclusive club of nations is the stuff of which celestial dreams are made. One can only imagine what the next 70 years will bring.