Launch of European rocket carrying tiny Israeli space lab delayed again

Launch of European rocket carrying tiny Israeli space lab delayed again

Vega rocket carrying payload of 53 small satellites, including experiments from Sheba, Technion and Hebrew University, kept grounded again, and again, by bad weather

Illustrative: The Vega 1 rocket on the launchpad in 2012. (S. Corvaja/ESA)
Illustrative: The Vega 1 rocket on the launchpad in 2012. (S. Corvaja/ESA)

The planned launch of a European rocket carrying over 50 small satellites was scrubbed late Sunday, again delaying the send-off of an Israeli micro-orbiter with millions of bacteria aboard that will be studied to prepare for keeping future space tourists healthy.

The launch of the Arianespace Vega rocket from French Guiana has been beset by months of delays due to the coronavirus crisis and bad weather, but analysts had predicted that it would finally take off on Saturday (early Sunday in Israel). However, planners called off the mission less than an hour before liftoff due to high-altitude winds.

A new launch was set for Sunday night (early Monday in Israel) but that was also scrapped due to continued bad weather.

“Arianespace has decided to postpone flight VV16 … due to unfavorable weather. A new launch date is to be announced. More information will be available soon,” Arianespace said in a statement.

The European Space agency is hoping the launch will get its Vega rocket program back on track after the last launch, in July last year, was lost shortly after takeoff and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Work on the current mission, VV16, was suspended from March to May due to the coronavirus crisis. Several attempts at launches have been tried since June 17, but all have been scrubbed by poor weather conditions.

The current launch is meant to prove the viability of a new payload dispenser designed to ferry dozens of small satellites into the heavens at once. Aboard the Vega will be 53 different satellites from 21 countries, including an Israeli mini space lab with a chip containing some 20 million E.coli bacteria being studied by Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv.

The silicone chip containing e.coli that Sheba Medical Center is sending to space (courtesy of SpacePharma)

The two-square-meter satellite will contain three other Israeli experiments, alongside Sheba’s. The Technion – Israel Institute for Technology has an experiment that could contribute to knowledge on anti-bacterial and anti-viral materials and will examine the behavior of germ-killing molecules in microgravity.

Another Technion experiment will test the speed at which blood proteins bind to chemical materials. In addition, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has an experiment on DNA molecules and aging.

Ohad Gal-Mor, head of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory, holding a sample of bacteria (courtesy Sheba Medical Center)

The Herzliya-based company SpacePharma developed the chip and the satellite lab in which all four Israeli experiments will be tested. The overall mission is being run in conjunction with the European Space Agency, the Israel Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, with funding from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry.

Ohad Gal-Mor, a molecular microbiologist who heads Sheba’s Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory, said that by monitoring bacteria in space, he expects to draw conclusions that may help develop protocols for medical care of space tourists.

“We’re expecting space tourism to become significant, and when it does, people will get all sorts of diseases,” he said. “In the future, there will be space hospitals, but we don’t have enough knowledge about how infections respond to space.

“This experiment could give us information about these risks, which will be important as people could get all sorts of diseases in space, meaning we’ll need broad medical care.”

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