On July 6, using a Shavit-2 rocket, Israel successfully launched the Ofek 16 reconnaissance satellite into Earth’s orbit. The first Israeli satellite (Ofek 1) was launched in 1988. Investment in this field produces strategic defence systems, but also innovations that assist industries in coping with various technological obstacles. Israel is one of 13 countries in the world with full space capabilities (launching satellites), alongside the United States, Italy, France, Japan, India, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and South Korea.
Left to right: Inbal Krayes, Morris Kahn, Sylvan Adams and Dr. Ido Anteby at the Israel Aerospace Industries facility in Yehud, Israel. (photo from SpaceIL)
On Nov. 19, SpaceIL announced that Canadian billionaire and businessman Sylvan Adams, who brought the Giro d’Italia Big Start cycling race to Israel this year, joined the project to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon and contributed $5 million to the organization.
Adams announced his contribution as part of a special tour that took place at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) MBT Space facility in Yehud, where the spacecraft is being assembled. Also attending the tour were SpaceIL’s president Morris Kahn, SpaceIL chief executive officer Dr. Ido Anteby and other senior IAI officials, including IAI vice-president of space operations Inbal Krayes.
Adams, who was celebrating his 60th birthday, said at the event that “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.”
He added: “I believe that sending the first Israeli spacecraft to the moon will inspire Israeli schoolchildren to take up STEM studies and think about space exploration, and especially to believe that everything is possible.”
Since SpaceIL’s establishment in 2011, the mission of landing an Israeli spacecraft on the moon has become a national project embodying educational values. Adams joins a group of donors who have contributed to the project, including Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Sammy Sagol, Lynn Schusterman, Steven Grand and others.
Kahn, a businessman and philanthropist, took it upon himself to lead the project and bring it to its completion, donating $27 million and serving as the project’s president. He regards its completion as his personal mission.
“We are in the final stretch,” said Kahn, “and I believe that his [Adams] joining will help us raise the remaining money to complete our ambitious mission.”
“The teams of SpaceIL and IAI are making great progress in a series of tests and trials being carried out at IAI’s space facility,” Anteby said. “At the same time, we are stepping up activities to promote scientific and technological education in the state of Israel, ahead of launch.”
In October, SpaceIL and the Israeli Space Agency announced a collaboration with NASA that would enable SpaceIL to improve its ability to track and communicate with the spacecraft before, during and after landing on the moon.
IAI, which is the home of Israel’s space activity, has been a full partner in this project from its inception. Over the years, additional partners from Israel’s private sector, the Israeli government and from academia have joined as well. The most prominent among these are the Weizmann Institute of Science; Israel Space Agency; the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space; the Israeli telecom firm Bezeq, and others.
The same week of Adams’ donation, Ofir Akunis, Israel’s minister of science, technology and space, visited the IAI facility where the spacecraft is being built, after the ministry announced an additional NIS 7.5 million ($2.66 million Cdn) in support for the project.
“The moon mission is one of great national pride. There is a short time before the spacecraft’s launch, and I have no doubt all Israelis will feel great joy when the spacecraft blasts off,” Akunis said. “I am a great believer that the landing will be one of the highlights in the history of the state of Israel, and the educational activity we are doing around the mission sets the foundation for engineers who will work in the field of space and science in the next decade.”
SpaceIL was the only Israeli contestant in the international Google Lunar XPRIZE competition. To win the first prize of $20 million, the participants were required to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. The competition ended officially with no winner on March 31, when Google announced that it would no longer sponsor the competition.
After succeeding in raising the critical funds to continue its activity, SpaceIL announced that it was determined to continue on its mission and to launch its spacecraft, regardless of the competition. Concurrently, the nonprofit is continuing its efforts to raise the funds necessary to complete this mission.
SpaceIL aims to set in motion an “Apollo effect” in Israel: to encourage the next generation of Israeli children to choose to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to change their perception of these subjects; to generate a sense of capability, and to allow them to dream big dreams even in a small country.
Author Jamaica Kincaid is among the Dan David Prize winners this year. (photo from TAU via Ashernet)
Tel Aviv University (TAU) has announced the winners of this year’s Dan David Prize, which will be awarded at a ceremony at TAU on May 21. Sometimes referred to as “Israel’s Nobel Prize,” this year’s recipients are Swedish biologist Prof. Svante Pääbo, American geneticist Prof. David Reich, American author Jamaica Kincaid, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, American astrophysicists Prof. Neil Gehrels and Prof. Shrinivas Kulkarni, and Polish astronomer and astrophysicist Prof. Andrzej Udalski.
The prize is named after the late Dan David, an international businessman and philanthropist.
Born in Romania in 1929, David worked for Romanian TV and later became a press photographer. In 1960, he settled in Israel. A year later, he traveled to Europe. With a loan from a cousin, he won the franchise for the Photo-Me automated photography booths in certain countries, and opened branches in several European countries, as well as in Israel, and eventually took over the company.
In 2000, he founded the Dan David Foundation with a $100 million endowment. The first time the annual prize was awarded was in 2002. David’s aim was to reward those who have made a lasting impact on society and to help young students and entrepreneurs become the leaders and scholars of the future.
The formation of the moon has remained something of a puzzle. A leading theory proposes a cataclysmic impact involving a Mars-sized object and a young earth. But there are some inconsistencies with this scenario. A new study at the Weizmann Institute of Science, based on hundreds of simulations run on a computer cluster, suggests that a more plausible chain of events might involve a number of run-ins with smaller objects. This would have produced smaller moonlets that would have eventually coalesced into the single moon we have today. The research appeared this month in Nature Geoscience.
Research student Raluca Rufu and Prof. Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute’s earth and planetary sciences department point out that the accepted explanations for the formation of our moon rely on highly specific initial conditions – for example, a collision with an object of a particular size traveling at a defined velocity and hitting the earth at a specific angle. Furthermore, in a typical impact, different proportions of that object would have ended up in the earth and the moon, leaving a detectable difference between the bodies, but various chemical analyses of the moon’s makeup, taken from samples returned by astronauts, reveal that it is nearly identical to that of the earth. In other words, there is no trace of the large body that supposedly hit the earth, and the theories, say the researchers, turn out to be improbable.
Rufu and Aharonson, together with Dr. Hagai Perets of the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, asked whether a number of smaller collisions might better explain what happened several billion years ago, when the solar system was taking shape. Such smaller bodies would have been more prevalent in the system, and thus collisions with smaller objects would have been more likely. Small, high-velocity collisions could also mine more material from the earth than a single, large one. In addition, explained Aharonson, if a number of different bodies collided with the earth over a period of millions of years, their different chemical signatures – for example, ratios of oxygen-16 to its heavier cousins, oxygen-17 and -18 – might even out, masking the traces of the various collisions.
The collisions – with small planets one-tenth the mass of the earth to space rocks the size of the moon, a hundredth the mass of the earth – would have sent clouds of rubble, melt and vapour into orbit around the early earth. These, according to the simulations the scientists created, would have cooled and agglomerated into small moonlets that, in time, could have merged into one.
To test this scenario, the group ran around 800 impact simulations on the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Chemfarm cluster, which has more than 5,000 processor cores.
“The new scenario does not require finely tuned initial conditions,” said Rufu, “and, if the smaller moonlets, as we think, were drawn into the same orbit, they could have merged over millions of years.”
“We are now running further simulations to try to understand how the smaller moonlets produced in these simulations might have coalesced to form our moon,” added Aharonson.
Aharonson’s research is supported by the Benoziyo Endowment Fund for the Advancement of Science; the Helen Kimmel Centre for Planetary Science, which he heads; the Minerva Centre for Life under Extreme Planetary Conditions, which he heads; the J & R Centre for Scientific Research; and the Adolf and Mary Mil Foundation.
An artist’s impression of the newly discovered planet, Proxima Centauri b. (photo from ESO/M. Kornmesser)
An international team announced recently that a planet with a mass similar to that of earth has been observed orbiting the star Proxima Centauri – the closest star to our sun, just over four light years (about 40 trillion kilometres) away.
The collaboration of scientists from nine countries, known as the “Pale Red Dot” and led by Dr. Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University of London, included Weizmann Institute of Science’s Dr. Aviv Ofir, who is in the group of Prof. Oded Aharonson of the earth and planetary sciences department.
Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf – a star with a diameter about one seventh that of our sun and far dimmer: it gives off only 1/600 the light of our sun. The team’s calculations show that the planet, known as Proxima Centauri b, has a mass of at least 1.3 times that of earth and its year – the time it takes to orbit its sun – is a little over 11 days. It orbits quite close to its sun – only five percent of the distance from earth to our sun; but, since its sun is so dim, the temperature on Proxima Centauri b may be relatively balmy and liquid water could theoretically exist on its surface.
The range of distances where the planet’s temperature permits liquid water is often referred to as “the habitable zone.” Although conditions on the planet’s surface are as yet unclear, the scientific team hopes to learn more about this planet in further research. Ofir said it is not at all clear whether life as we know it could have evolved on the planet, and the subject is already the focus of intense debate.
The planet was discovered through measurements of the radial velocity of the star. Such measurements rely on the Doppler effect, the shift in wavelength as an object moves closer to or away from the viewer. The star, according to the team’s highly accurate measurements, is moving at a speed of about a metre a second (or 3.6 kilometres an hour) towards and away from us.
Ofir explained that, when we speak of a planet orbiting a star, in reality they are both orbiting a shared centre of gravity. Since the mass of the star is naturally much greater than that of its planets, that centre of gravity is usually close to the centre of the star, and planets make the star’s motion appear as a “wobble.” And that wobble can be detected by today’s instruments: in the case of Proxima Centauri, the scientists observed periodic changes in the star’s velocity, the result of another body tugging at it. That body, according to the measurements, is a planet with a relatively small mass, just over that of earth.
Ofir pointed out that Proxima Centauri has been studied for the past century, but only now have observations – designed for this very purpose – become sensitive enough to decisively detect the presence of this small planet. He is continuing to work on this and other projects to identify and study planets around Proxima Centauri.
“We discovered the planet with an observatory in Chile. We can’t see Proxima Centauri from our observatories in Israel,” he explained. “It is well below the southern horizon, so it is unobservable from Israel all year round.”
Prof. Victoria Kaspi, winner of the 2016 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. (photo from McGill University)
McGill University Prof. Victoria Kaspi – the first woman to win the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering – says that her Jewish background and her parents’ support have had a lot to do with how much she has accomplished.
“Questioning is so inherently Jewish,” she told the Independent. “I think this builds personality, skill, and derived pleasure from talking and thinking. Jews are very studious, loving the books. For some people, it’s the Torah; for others, it’s different types of books … just really enjoying the process of studying, thinking and analyzing. I think that’s what my Jewish background has brought to my work.”
Neither of her parents were scientists. “I just really like it,” she said. “I grew up loving math. My parents were pretty hands off and they certainly never discouraged me. I was sort of an oblivious kind of kid, so if there were cultural signals that I shouldn’t go into science, I must have missed them.
“I think my parents built up my confidence. They never questioned my decisions. When I said I want to go into science, they never asked why I’d want to do that. They used to buy me lots of math toys and puzzles as a kid. Probably my mom encouraged me. She used to play lots of games with me.
“I’m sure I had encouragement from teachers along the way and family as well,” she added. Describing science as “always a great love,” she said it was neither forced on her or strongly encouraged as a study or career path. But Kaspi is aware of the societal pressures on women to not go into science, especially now, with her own daughters.
“They are sometimes subtle and pointing them out can be petty, but when you notice them as an overall trend – where there’s lots of little, tiny subtle signals that, in the end, register very large – I think that needs some work,” said Kaspi of the pressures. “Why I didn’t suffer from that? I’m not sure. I’m hoping that this will improve with time.”
Kaspi uses radio and X-ray telescopes to examine the behavior of neutron stars, using the cosmos as a lab to study the nature of matter in extreme environments.
“The sort of work I’ve done has involved different types of neutron stars,” said Kaspi. “One, in particular, that I’ve done is magnetars, which are neutron stars with very high magnetic fields. They sometimes explode randomly and are just really interesting to study. But there are other things, too.”
Neutron stars are stars that have collapsed and are very dense. A black hole is a star that has collapsed onto itself, due to gravity being so strong that nothing can escape from the surface, not even light; hence, the name, black hole. Neutrons are close cousins of black holes, but some light does escape from them.
“The typical neutron star has as much matter in it as half a million planet earths, but is crushed down to the size of a city,” said Kaspi. “We think a typical diameter of a neutron star is something like 20 kilometres.
“If you’ve crushed all that matter into the size of a small city, you have matter that is extremely dense. If you went up to a neutron star with a teaspoon and you took a teaspoon of the matter, it would weigh something like a billion tons.”
Kaspi said, “We don’t understand the physics of it very well, and that’s one of the things we are hoping to learn by studying them. When studying these objects, we use very powerful computers and algorithms, digital signal processing, there’s a lot of hard work and managing of big data.
“People who study pulsars are snapped up by software companies, because they are really good at developing algorithms, thinking out of the box and finding creative solutions to big data problems.”
Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars and emit a bright beam of light. They are observed through their flashes. If you wanted to go flying around the galaxy and needed a useful, simple way to know where you are, you could use a pulsar. “They all pulse very regularly,” said Kaspi. “You can use that to know where you are in the galaxy and which direction you want to go.”
Kaspi’s research group has used neutron stars to confirm Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
“As scientists, we don’t believe just because a theory is beautiful, it has to be right,” she said. “You have to test it with experiments. These neutron stars allow you to do phenomenal tests of general relativity. Was Einstein right or not? There are other theories of gravity and we can test those, too.”
One of the biggest projects Kaspi is currently working on in Canada is the building of the Chime Telescope in Penticton. She is also looking into “fast radio bursts.”
Of this phenomenon, Kaspi said, “It’s something that’s a big mystery right now that we don’t understand. Astronomers are pretty puzzled over these things. They are very short, a few milliseconds, bursts of radio waves, little blips in the sky that go off randomly but frequently. We think a few thousand go off across the whole sky every day. The first one was discovered a decade ago. Until now, only about 20 have been recorded.”
Kaspi has earned international recognition and numerous awards for her work over the years. As for receiving the Herzberg medal, she said she feels honored, and added, “I may be the first [woman] for this prize, but I won’t be the last. There will be many more women in the future.”