Monday, February 7, 2011

Space research, cosmos, moon exploration... What's Next?

Q&A with ASRI Head Prof. Ehud Behar

Prof. Ehud Behar, Technion Faculty of Physics and Head of ASRI

"When you can't be bigger you need to be better. Israel has been a world leader in space research."

By Georgina Johnson

Q: In broad terms, how do you see the future of science and technology in space?

Opportunities for science and technology in space are unlimited.

Space technology promotes the well being of societies all over the world first and foremost through satellite communication services.

However, space applications are much more diverse and include weather and environmental monitoring, resource and crisis management, as well as the provision of safety and security of the peace seeking countries.

Most interesting for me personally though are the opportunities for science and exploration.  Be it the landing on or flying by solar system objects (including the sun itself), or the space-borne observatories exploring the most extreme objects of the universe such as black holes and supernovae, the observations of our universe at its infancy, or the search for other forms of life in the solar system or elsewhere, the surprises of the universe easily exceed any expectation.

Q: How much of space research is oriented towards solving scientific mysteries and how much is commercial?

I know it is hard to accept in today's commercial world, but our primary drive is scientific and technological curiosity. The commercial potential is there and is welcome, but it is not the driver. On the other hand, space science is extremely challenging and it is well known that when scientists undertake the task of solving hard problems good things happen. In many cases the spin offs from space research are totally unexpected. NASA publishes a whole book every year about the spin offs from its research efforts.  I even heard the claim that the development of disposable diapers is due to NASA's astronaut program.

Q: What is Israel’s role and advantage in the future of space research?

Israel has a tremendously admirable space heritage and record and not only when considering its small size compared to the big space agencies such as NASA and ESA.

When you can't be bigger you need to be better and Israel has been a world leader in space (including astrophysics) research.

In terms of citations per paper, which is one academic measure for quality, Israel ranks third in the world in space research right behind Canada and the U.S.

Q: What gives Technion scientists and students an advantage in terms of pioneering the unknown frontiers?
The Technion as Israel's leading technical university attracts the best young minds in the country, which is key to the success of any university or high-tech institute.

In space sciences, the Technion is the only university with a space research institute per se and is one of a few distinguished universities in the world that have launched its own satellite.

Despite all the turmoil of the higher education system in Israel, the Technion has (miraculously?) managed to maintain a reasonable level of funding for infrastructure and modern laboratories that allow us to carry out cutting-edge fundamental research.

The unusually high quality of the Israeli industry and our ongoing collaborate with them is also key to our continued success.

Q: Will an advantage in space decide the fate of a nation in the future?

I think more generally, first and foremost, the advantages we will have in education and technology will decide the fate of our nation in the future, just as it has secured our place among the leading modern nations in the past 62 years.  This goes back to the first question where we said that it is the almost unlimited opportunities in space that attract curious, dreaming young individuals for which even the sky is not the limit. 

As long as we encourage them to keep on dreaming and allocate them the resources to pursue their interests I think our future will remain bright. Indeed, space research is one of the forerunners and engines of modern technology. It is obviously also a cornerstone in the national security of those countries that have space capabilities as Israel does, which is probably what your question is implying.

Q: What is your vision and dream for ASRI in the next decade?

My immediate aim is to expand the activities of ASRI and bring in more space-related disciplines into our institute.

My vision is to create a new synergy between science and technology in which the satellite builders work in tandem with the space consumers, such as the earth monitoring environmentalists and astrophysicists. This will be accomplished by both bringing in members of other departments into our institute, but also by establishing new collaborations with laboratories around the world.

We already have many successful programs running at ASRI. We have a laboratory for satellite electrical thrusters in which the Technion is developing its own thruster, but the laboratory is also testing thrusters for the industry. We have a unique laboratory for distributed space systems, i.e., missions that involve more than one satellite. We have an ongoing ground experiment for satellite laser communications running.  We are building the Technological Mission Center for the Israeli-French Venus satellite to be launched soon and which will monitor vegetation on Earth at high resolution. Many of our activities are carried out in close collaboration with the Israeli industry and mostly with RAFAEL.

My goal is to establish new laboratories and broaden the participation of Technion researchers as well as industrial partners in our activities. Some of the directions I am exploring are: An optics laboratory in collaboration with the Physics department to invent novel space telescopes and more generally to develop instrumentation for space observations, the promotion of research and methods for satellite remote sensing (the science mission of the Venus satellite) in collaboration with the Civil Engineering department. I am looking for ways to kick-start a research program in planetary science, which is virtually non-existent at the Technion as of today, but is an inherent part of most leading space research institutes.

You may very well know that the Technion satellite Gurwin-Techsat has recently reached the critical point in which its batteries can no longer sustain its nominal activities. This was not unexpected and in fact Gurwin-Techsat, as far as I know, holds the world record for the longest operating university-scale satellite, more than 12 years. We at ASRI are already thinking of the next Technion space mission, which the next grand challenge of our institute.

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