Israel may or may not be sending a second astronaut into space in the coming years, but there is already a significant Israeli presence in space, in the form of over a dozen reconnaissance and communications satellites plying the heavens. Now, Israel will be launching its first civilian-oriented satellite — Venus (Vegetation and Environment Monitoring New Micro-Satellite), to be launched jointly with France in 2015. The announcement on the final decision for the launch, which has been delayed several times, was made Thursday by Dr. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, Chairman of the Israel Space Agency.

The announcement was made in advance of Israel Space Week, highlighted by the ISA’s 9th International Space Conference, on January 29 and 30. The annual event, dedicated to the memory of Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, brings together senior space personnel — engineers, technicians, astronauts, and heads of space agencies — from Israel and abroad, among them officials from NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia, China, Italy, Canada, and Norway.

Conference sessions will discuss a wide range of subjects, presenting the latest innovations by the Israeli military and civilian industries relating to space travel and satellites, security, entrepreneurship in space and the launching of commercial spaceships, and a firsthand description of what it’s like to go “up there,” with the participation of NASA and ESA astronauts and Maj. Gen. Dr. Dimitru Prunariu, the first cosmonaut of Romania and founder of the Association of Space Explorers.

One of the highlights of the event will be a panel discussion with top officials of space agencies from the U.S., Canada, Italy, Mexico, Norway, and Israel. Rona Ramon, widow of Ilan Ramon, who died in 2003 in the Columbia shuttle disaster, will also speak at the event.

But besides the conference, there will be space-oriented activities throughout the week. Schools will hold special sessions dedicated to discussing space travel and satellite technology. There will also be a special exhibition at the Tel Aviv Port of photos taken from space by Italian astronaut Paulo Naspoli from the International Space Station, who will be on hand to discuss the photos. Photos taken by Israeli satellites will also be on display, and for the first time, Israelis will have the opportunity to use Google Glass, which will be loaded with video and applications relating to space.

A space conference in Israel makes a lot of sense, since Israel is a space power — one of only 13 countries to break the Earth’s atmosphere. Israel’s first satellite, the Ofeq-1, was launched in 1988, making Israel the eighth country to launch a satellite. Today, there are more than 15 celestial Stars of David revolving around the earth, providing military intelligence, as well as TV and other communication services as part of three satellite programs — Ofeq, Amos, and EROS.

The country’s newest satellite program, Venus, is the first purely commercial satellite (the Amos satellites are used for civilian and military purposes), and will be used to monitor vegetation growth, using a French-made superspectral camera to take photos of where plants and crops are growing, and analyzing them to determine the impact of nature and human activity on growth. The satellite will take photos of “predefined sites of interest all around the world,” said CNES, the French space agency.

Israel and France signed the deal to launch Venus in 2005, and the original launch date was set for 2008, but was postponed several times, mostly due to delays in the development of the camera that the satellite will use. Last week, the ISA announced that final preparations were being made for the mission, with the launch date set for sometime next year.

That launch could be a prelude to the blastoff of another Israeli astronaut into space, although plans for a second Israeli to join a space mission are still very preliminary, reports said. Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was killed on February 1, 2003, when the NASA space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day mission. According to the reports, Israel is in talks with the US, EU, and Russia to send an astronaut to the International Space Station. However, the reports noted, it would be at least several years before an Israeli could join the mission, as the next open seats have been promised to the U.S., Russia, China, and several EU countries.