‘Israel will become an important hub for Space innovation’

In honor of Moon Day (July 20), we spoke with Avi Shabtai, CEO of Ramon.Space about data centers in Space, landings on tiny asteroids, images from Mars, and the good news about Beresheet 2.

‘Israel will become an important hub for Space innovation’

Photo taken during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Photo: NASA/JSC

Try to imagine a computer developed by a team of experts, with the objective of operating in space. It launches successfully, but as it leaves the atmosphere, an air bubble is discovered in one of its components. On planet earth, this of course would not pose a problem. In space, however, that one tiny air bubble could destroy years of hard work and millions of dollars invested in the project: it will try to find a way out, but with the absence of any external air for it to merge into, the bubble will explode powerfully inside the computer, just like microwave popcorn – and in so doing, will destroy everything around it.

It is precisely challenging problems like this in the field of space computing that Israeli company Ramon.Space – founded with the assistance of the Israel Space Agency in 2004 – is interested in solving. The company (named of course in honor of the first Israeli astronaut, the late Ilan Ramon) builds computer systems adapted to the extreme conditions of space, hoping to revolutionize the use of software applications and information processing. The company’s clients include state space agencies from around the world, as well as private companies.

“Our objective is to bring computing to space and provide services to earth, so that what is being here on the ground today can be done in space,” explains Avi Shabtai, CEO of Ramon.Space in a video confererence with IsraelDefense from Palo Alto, California, where the company’s headquarters are located. “Most of what we build is installed on satellites and deep-space missions that study the solar system, earth’s surroundings, and more.

“We’re developing extremely advanced, artificial intelligence and signal processing-based components as well as the entire computer systems around them in a way that they can handle the conditions: the radiation that destroys electronic components and that needs to be protected against with special systems, the vacuum – for example, how to cool a computer if there is no air to enable the use of a fan. We are literally developing solutions that are out of this world. As of today, we have already participated in over 50 space missions.”

Massive amounts of data are produced in Space, causing a bottleneck in access to Earth

“Our clients use the systems we provide in three primary areas,” Shabtai says. (“With a name like this, my path was predetermined,” he jokes – “Shabtai” is Hebrew for “Saturn.”) “The first is satellite communications, the second is for Earth observation and remote-sensing satellites – be they electronic, thermal, or anything else – and the third is a field that has been developing a lot lately: data centers. The ambition is to actually build them in space and on the moon, and that requires specific systems that are capable of processing an enormous amount of data.

The Ramon.Space staff. Photo: Boaz Forman

“Currently, the amount of data produced in space is increasing exponentially, and the ordinary methods for it reaching Earth for processing are already insufficient. The enormous amount of data is creating a bottleneck in accessing earth,” he says. “There are already quite a few parties that are starting to build infrastructures for computing, data, and networking off-planet. It’s more in the area that we define as ‘orbital services’ for earth.”

But this sophisticated technology needs not only to overcome the harsh physical conditions of Space but also must simultaneously face a far more down-to-earth challenge: cybercrime and malicious intrusions into systems containing an infinite quantity of information that may lead to catastrophic results on a global scale.

“As systems in space become more and more sophisticated, I think that it’s pretty clear that cybersecurity and information security will become an integral part of the industry, and there are already companies working specifically in this area,” Shabtai says. He clarifies that Ramon.Space also attaches the utmost importance to the matter and is working to guarantee the security of its software systems and to create innovative ways to update software in Space. 

“Since most operations are mission critical, the whole issue of updating software in space takes on a completely different angle. It is no longer updating a single satellite computer via an uplink, for instance; rather it’s routine software updates of a network that includes hundreds of satellites in orbit that need to be upgraded. It’s an extremely complex but necessary process.”

Q: Communication satellites, space technologies, cyber-attacks – you don’t have to be a big conspiracy theorist to think about espionage.

“From a military and defense perspective, space has always been a means to obtain both commercial and non-commercial information. So it seems like it will continue to be that way,” responds Shabtai diplomatically. “I suppose that there’s a long, historical race for control of Space, and I think that all governments see Space as a strategic target. It’s enough to see how much everyone invests in the field – the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese. Space is seen as a frontier with great strategic importance; that’s part of it.”

Remaining on the asteroid forever

Star Trek fans will be very interested in another of Ramon.Space’s lines of work: the unique missions in deep space. “Our components are in quite a few of those missions,” says Shabtai. “For instance, on the Hayabusa2 mission of the Japanese Space agency JAXA. The mission launched a Spacecraft to an asteroid 40 million kilometers from Earth that collected samples, made the return trip, and landed in last December. The samples are currently being analyzed. It is an incredible story – sending something that will reach an asteroid that only has a surface area of 1.5 kilometers!

“Actually, we remained on that asteroid forever,” he smiles. “We always strive for the part that returns to Earth to be as small as possible, so only the capsule that collected the information returned. We left behind the computer system connected to various things, such as the satellite imaging during the landing, the electronics related to the mission itself – the arm that collected the samples, the flight computer, and more.

Q: What other missions are you part of?

“You can also find us in the European Space Agency’s Mars orbiter mission that launched in 2016. Many of the pictures seen today from Mars come from that orbiter pass through our computer components,” Shabtai says. “We’re also part of the Solar Orbiter mission, which last year reached the closest point to the sun so far – 76 million kilometers from it, which is about halfway between here and the sun.

The Solar Orbiter mission. Photo from the European Space Agency website

“It’s a joint mission of the European Space Agency and NASA. The information collected there has a significant impact on our understanding of the sun’s behavior and how it affects things that happen on Earth.” The company is also participating in a NASA mission to predict the development of hurricanes, as well as one of the most intriguing missions of the future: that of the JUICE Spacecraft, which will take off next year to explore the moons of Jupiter.

“It’s super cool to be on all these missions, to be part of breaking the boundaries of the Earth and be part of this big thing, of exploring the solar system beyond our own placement. We have the best location, that’s for sure, but apparently we’ll need to use the resources of Space to maintain it,” concludes Shabtai.

“The Space industry suits the nature of Israeli startups”

The conversation with Shabtai took place on Moon Day, observed around the world on July 20. It was on that day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon (Buzz Aldrin walked the next day, UTC.) It is also a particularly optimistic moment in the industry for Israel: The week before, SpaceIL announced that it had raised $70 million, which will enable the launch of the Beresheet 2 Spacecraft to the moon in 2024. “Now that the budget has been announced, this business can really get moving,” Shabtai says. “We’re obviously very happy, and we’ll probably be involved in the project at some point.

“I really hope that this mission succeeds because I think that it will have a lot of significance for Israel and the Israeli space industry,” he continues. “I see how the interest in Israel is developing. Look how much noise there was around Beresheet 1 and its landing and how space is currently entering the mainstream, even among children. Four or five years ago, it wasn’t even on the agenda, and suddenly there all kinds of space camps and space-based costumes – a lot more than in the past. It’s really beautiful.”

Q: Tell us a bit about your work in Israel.

“We’re very active in Israel. We have a lot of collaborations with the Israel Space Agency, which has also been one of our biggest supporters over the years, and it really helped the company develop. Over the years, we have been involved in quite a few important projects and activities with the Space Agency, both at the commercial level and at the state level,” Shabtai explains. By the way, for those who are interested: the company, which presently has 39 employees, is currently recruiting a long list of positions, including at the development center in Israel.

Avi Shabtai, CEO of Ramon.Space. Photo courtesy of the company

“In addition to the Space Agency, we also have customers in Israel. We are bound by confidentiality agreements with most of them, so it’s a bit difficult to elaborate. Something that is already public knowledge, for instance, is our involvement in the Technion’s trio of satellites” – the Adelis-SAMSON project, which launched into space in March, assembled autonomous satellites to geolocate terrestrial signals. “I can also say that we are also very active in Israel in the main areas I’ve already mentioned: computing and data solutions for satellite systems, observation and sensing satellites, and satellite communication systems.”

“You need to remember that the field of space services and applications is still in its infancy, and I think that Israeli innovation is starting to get there now,” Shabtai said. “The space industry really suits the nature of Israeli startups – entrepreneurship and deep technology. I think we will start seeing more and more startup nation companies in the field. I believe that Israel is going to become an important hub for space innovation”.


**This is a translated article, originally published in Hebrew. For the original article click here

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