Space Week lifts off as Google space race intensifies

Lectures, demonstrations, and events aim to prepare Israelis for the biggest space-oriented event of all – Israel’s moon shot

A model of SpaceIL's lunar landing craft prototype , which an Israeli group proposes to send to the moon (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A model of SpaceIL's lunar landing craft prototype , which an Israeli group proposes to send to the moon (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israelis are looking to the stars once again, as Space Week begins Sunday, with exhibits, lectures, contests, demonstrations and more showing off Israel’s prowess in space tech. The event is perhaps more relevant this year than ever, according to Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency (ISA), because this year the core tech that will bring Israel to the moon needs to be finished.

2015 was set to be the “year of space” for Israel as well as for many other countries that have teams competing for a $20 million prize in the Google LunarX space race contest. The mission for the moon-bound spaceships: to take high-definition video and beam it back to earth, and explore the surface of the moon by moving, or sending out a vehicle, that will move 500 meters along the moon’s surface.

Thirty-three teams entered the contest when it was first announced in 2007; today, 18 remain, but only five, including Israel’s team, are thought by industry experts to be making significant progress on their projects.

The original end-of-2015 deadline has been pushed back to December 31, 2016, but the core technology for the Israeli craft being built by SpaceIL, the organization that intends to win the prize on Israel’s behalf, needs to be completed soon.

That makes Israel Space Week a very important event for Israelis, said Ben-Israel. “Israel sees space technology as an incentive to advancement and a key to a highly developed information economy which will attract high-quality professionals and skilled workers,” he said. “SpaceIL’s initiative is the first of what we expect will be many Israeli innovations in space exploration.”

That exploration, along with all things space, will be celebrated this week in dozens of special events marking Space Week in Israel. Timed to coincide with the anniversary of the tragic death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died on February 1, 2003, when the NASA space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day mission, Space Week is being held for the third time this year.

Inspired by SpaceIL, the main event of Space Week will be the inauguration of the Israel Space Academy, which will seek to recruit and train the astronauts of the future.

Visitors will get a taste of what that training is like in a special G-force simulator at the Planetarium in the Tel Aviv Museum, which will offer an opportunity to feel what it is like to rush through space at beyond the speed of sound, as well as experience weightlessness, zero gravity, and the other phenomena associated with space travel.

Kids will also have the opportunity to don a spacesuit and build their own scale-model spaceship.

The events will be held in and around the Tel Aviv Musuem, and prospective participants are invited to sign up at the Space Week website.

Space Week is very closely connected with the legacy of Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, and the event includes several events dedicated specifically to his memory. Ramon’s wife, Rona, will speak at several events throughout the week, including at the fourth annual Ilan Ramon Space Education Conference, set to take place Tuesday. The conference will discuss the latest in space technology in Israel and around the world, and will also feature presentations by American astronaut Nicole Stott and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. In addition, the finals for the first Ilan Ramon Olympics for middle-school students, which tests young teens on their knowledge of astronomy and space tech, will be held Thursday at the Weizmann Institute.

Meanwhile, SpaceIL is moving along with its efforts to build a moon-bound space capsule and make Israel the fourth country in the world to achieve this. The nonprofit group already has a dishwasher-sized spacecraft prototype and is putting the finishing touches on most of the major systems needed to propel the unmanned craft to its destination.

Together with California-based Space Micro, the Israeli group has begun developing its last major piece of technology – the mission transponder, the communications device that will enable ground crew to communicate with its spacecraft on its way to the moon and once it arrives on the lunar surface. Transmitting data back to earth through the transponder is the most challenging communications task of the entire mission, said SpaceIL, not only because of the long distance communications must travel – about 240,000 miles – but because of the electromagnetic disruptions on the lunar surface and in space, which could interfere with the quality of the data packets being sent.

The point of Space Week is to educate Israelis and inspire them – and especially their kids – to look at technology, science, and engineering as career options.

“In the early 1960s, when President Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, it inspired many young Americans to get into science and engineering, and arguably that explosion of technology education is the reason we have things like Internet and smartphones today,” as much of miniaturization and communication technology we use today was first developed for the US space program, said Yariv Bash, a co-founder of SpaceIL.

“In the US, that was called the Apollo Effect,” said Bash. “We want to duplicate that here, with a SpaceIL effect. We want the next generation in Israel and around the world to think differently about science, engineering, technology and math, and when kids see the pictures of an Israeli lander on the moon, flying the Israeli flag and equipped with Israeli technology, we belief this will have a profound effect, influencing many kids to want to be a part of it. For us, that would be the greatest success of all.”

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