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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Final Frontier: U.S.-Israel Space Cooperation

For over three decades, the United States and Israel have worked together to “boldly go” where only few other countries have ventured—space.


The U.S.-Israel space relationship began in 1985, when the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and NASA began cooperating on several projects on a case-by-case basis. A decade later, the two agencies regularized cooperation and signed their first agreement outlining areas of mutual cooperation in the peaceful use of space. Subsequently, NASA selected Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon in 1997 to train with NASA in Houston. Ramon would become Israel’s first astronaut; his life and six others were tragically cut short in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.  


In June 2011, astronauts aboard the U.S. space shuttle Endeavor conducted three Israeli experiments during a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). While two of the three returned to earth with Endeavor, one experiment was left at the ISS for continued study, marking the first Israeli experiment to take place there.


And in October 2015, NASA and ISA formally entered into a new agreement to bolster collaboration on civil space activities. Under this deal, NASA will be able to utilize Israeli innovation and technology in U.S. space programs—including future missions to Mars and many other endeavors.


Then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised the new accord, stating, “Our two countries have had a long history of cooperation in space exploration, scientific discovery and research, and we look forward to the opportunities this new agreement provides us to build upon this partnership.”  


Adding to this momentum, Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Marc Veasy (D-TX) introduced in February 2017 the United States and Israel Space Cooperation Act (H.R. 1159), bipartisan legislation that aims to deepen collaboration between the NASA and ISA.


“There are several new exciting developments in the world of U.S.-Israel collaboration,” said Israeli astrophysicist Eli Waxman. “The Israeli start-up StemRad has created a radiation vest that might make space cooperation safer, solar blankets are being developed, ULTRASAT will unlock the secrets in deep space and Israel is competing for a Google space prize to land on the moon.” Several important examples of current U.S.-Israel space cooperation in both the public and private sectors are featured below.


ULTRASAT


ULTRASAT is a proposed satellite whose advanced ultraviolet (UV) telescope will scan the cosmos to investigate how massive stars die, as well as the environment around black holes at the centers of galaxies. The joint collaboration between scientists at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, California Institute of Technology and ISA is targeting 2022 for the satellite’s launch. A proposal for U.S. funding for ULTRASAT was submitted in December 2016, and NASA is expected to announce its decision later this year.


My view is that a mission like ULTRASAT can take big steps forward in all aspects of U.S.-Israel space cooperation,” said Waxman. “Unlike other innovations that have a small Israeli contribution as part of a larger U.S. initiative, ULTRASAT is a jointly developed and produced project.”


“We are aiming to build this groundbreaking technology at the low cost of $100 million including the launch,” he continued. “This will be able to create opportunities for more missions and more collaborations between the two nations.”

AstroRad Anti-Radiation Vest


In July 2015, Israel’s StemRad and U.S. defense company Lockheed Martin inaugurated a joint research-and-development initiative—the AstroRad anti-radiation vest—that may one day keep astronauts safe from harmful radiation on deep-space exploration missions, including on future missions to Mars. The Israeli company announced in March 2017 that this new product, a derivative of an innovative StemRad vest designed for first-responders, will be tested on Exploration Mission-1, an unmanned NASA mission scheduled to launch in late 2018.

Google Lunar XPrize


In January 2017, Israel’s SpaceIL won a position as one of five finalists in the multi-million-dollar Google Lunar XPrize race to the moon. This competition began with 33 teams a decade ago. With 30 engineers working in an Israel Aircraft Industries facility in Yehud, Israel, SpaceIL hopes to finish the spacecraft in the next 11 months. “The fact that we’re one of five teams that achieved this shows what we always knew: We are at the forefront of global technology in Israel and the space industry here has potential to be a leader globally,” said Kfir Damari, one of SpaceIL’s founders. “This gives us a lot of motivation to shoot for the moon.”


“We have waited for this moment for a long time,” said SpaceIL CEO Eran Privman. “Our hard work over the past six years is bearing fruit and we’re looking forward to the historic day of SpaceIL’s launch and to see the first Israeli spacecraft landing on the Moon.”


Fostering the Next Generation


On April 18, a small satellite built by Israeli high school students was launched into space from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as part of an international research project. The Duchifat-2 (Hoopoe) is one of 28 nanosatellites from 23 countries participating in the European Union’s QB50 thermosphere research program—and it is the only satellite in the program constructed by high school students.


“Duchifat-2 is not only an educational venture that brings space closer to youth and lays the way for tomorrow’s generation, it is also an international research project. This is Israeli pride for the future generation, and an opportunity to increase public awareness about space,” said Israel’s Science Minister Ofir Akunis.


The Israeli satellite will study the plasma density in the lower thermosphere and send signals to the Herzliya Science Center, where students will analyze the data. 


As the United States and Israel strengthen their ties across many important areas, exploration of “the final frontier” provides ample opportunity for the two allies to deepen their bilateral relationship in the decades ahead.


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