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Israel and the moon effect: From Beresheet to the Lunar Library

An artist's illustration of the Beresheet 1 lunar lander, which entered into orbit around the moon on 4 April, 2019. Image: Space IL
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Some issues need to be clarified with reference to the so-called failed Israeli mission to the Moon, which in Italy has been commented by people who, besides not knowing what they write, think that our satellite is a Sunday skating rink for bored vacationers.

The troubles that led to the accident were the components that did not fit in space; the difficulty of tracking the spacecraft; the failed science mission; the limited government help; media manipulations; the U.S. investigative procedure on the suspicion of lunar pollution. Itai Nevo, editor-in-chief of the Davidson Institute website, reveals untold things about the first Israeli mission to the Moon.

On the morning of February 22, 2019, hundreds of thousands of Israelis witnessed the launch of Beresheet (Genesis), the Israeli spacecraft that was about to make history and land on the Moon. The mission was to make Israel the fourth country to have landed a spacecraft on the Moon, but it had many other historic aspects: it was the first privately funded spacecraft to want to touch down on the lunar soil, the smallest and cheapest spacecraft to do so, and the first to be sent to the moon as a “hitchhiker” on another launch. The SpaceX launch vehicle’s primary launcher was an Indonesian communications satellite.

The spacecraft initially made its way to the Moon in increasing elliptical orbits around the Earth, with the transition between each orbit made by manoeuvring the engine for a short period of time, up to a few minutes. On April 4, 2019, it performed the most complicated manoeuvre (other than landing), activating the engine to decelerate and entering orbit around the Moon. A week later and following a few more deceleration manoeuvres, the actual landing began, in which the braking engine was reactivated to enable it to land gently in the Sea of Tranquillity.

At first, everything went well, but in the last ten minutes before landing, a series of malfunctions began that led to the engine shutting down and eventually the spacecraft crashing into the Moon. That same night, SpaceX and the aerospace industry explained that the reason for the accident was the amount of acceleration of the spacecraft, and promised to conduct a detailed investigation and publish the findings. Although the investigation was concluded, the findings were never published in an orderly manner. They are brought here to your knowledge for the first time, taken from

As with any space crash, the Beresheet crash was not caused by a single technical problem, but by a series of failures. Some of them lay in the original design of the vehicle which, as mentioned above, was very small and was built on a relatively small budget for such space missions: 100 million dollars including launch and operational costs. The other cause was a human error.

As early as the night of the launch, the engineering team announced there was a problem with the star trackers – a pair of cameras designed to photograph the sky, identify certain stars and thus determine the angle of the spacecraft in space – i.e whether it was flying “forward, ” “backward” or “sideways.” This is critically important during engine operation, because an incorrect angle sends the spacecraft into a completely different orbit than planned. Apparently, while pulling away from the launch pad, some dust particles settled on the dark shields that were supposed to protect the star trackers from direct sunlight, and hence they reflected the light and dazzled the cameras.

Early attempts to get around the problem were to use new software instructions, but they were unsuccessful. Engineers, instead, found creative solutions, including tilting the spacecraft sideways during manoeuvres and using accelerometers instead of star trackers in manoeuvres where it was impossible to escape sunlight. These changes forced the ground teams to do a lot of work and also made it difficult to locate the spacecraft, since any distortion could also deviate slightly from its orbit.

A few days after launch, another malfunction occurred when the spacecraft’s computer suddenly rebooted and postponed a planned manoeuvre. The problem continued to accompany the spacecraft on its journey to the Moon, apparently due to a malfunction in the electronic box that acted as a mediator between the computer and the spacecraft systems because of its exposure to intense radiation in space.

This is part of the price paid for a small, lightweight spacecraft with minimal radiation protection and relatively inexpensive components, some of which, like the box itself, were built specifically for the Beresheet mission and were never tested in space.

Another cost for an economical space mission was that there was only one computer in the spacecraft. Software extensions designed to overcome the problems were therefore not stored into the computer’s memory during the activity, but only into the working memory (RAM). As a result, the extensions were deleted each time the computer was started and had to be loaded back again into a command file.

While approaching the lunar surface, with the engine running all the time, the accelerometer – known as the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) – went off. The spacecraft had two of these accelerometers and was performing sufficiently with only one. At that time the team had to make a quick decision, i.e. whether to continue with just one correct one and hope it would not fail, or try to run it layer by layer. The decision was not to waste time.

Owing to the design logic of the spacecraft, however, the operation of an accelerometer briefly blocked the transmission of information from the normal accelerometer. For less than a second, the computer did not receive acceleration data and hence declared the navigation error. In such cases the software restarts. The restart took less than two seconds, but the computer went back into operation without the software extensions which, according to the landing command file, should have loaded for extra safety every minute.  

As a result, the computer rebooted continuously, and only after about five of these reboots did the extensions finally arrive as well.

The computer reboot caused the spacecraft’s main engine to shut down, which at that point should have run continuously and slowed the landing down. The computer was supposed to start up the engine immediately, but a malfunction was discovered that the engineering team detected before the startup but could not solve: in order to restart, the engine had to draw power from two sources, but after the startup only one of them worked, and the main engine did not fire.

The spacecraft continued to fall diagonally towards the Moon, with only the small directional engines continuing to operate while maintaining the correct direction. It hit the lunar ground at a speed of over 3,000 km/h and fragmented into many pieces.

As mentioned above, some of Beresheet’s problems were caused by the use of relatively inexpensive components, not all of which had been tested on other space missions. Even the accelerometers, which worked well throughout the mission until that major malfunction, were not designed specifically for space missions, and information about their operation on satellites was partial and incomplete. The fear of defects in their operation meant that they were present in duplicate numbers on the spacecraft.

Ofer Doron, who until a few months ago was the Director of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) that led the project with SpaceIL, said: “On a normal mission, we would not launch the spacecraft in such a situation. There was no redundancy of components and system. Many of the components were not tested in space and the probability of a successful landing was very low and we were not ready enough. Usually we do not launch unless there is a high probability of success, but the spacecraft was launched with small and inexpensive means. This is how it works in this area. The task force was also not properly trained, although they did a lot of training and preparation. In a normal satellite we would delay the launch, but when you are a hitchhiker and not the main cargo, there is no such option. We decided that it was enough and came out with a lower level of adequacy than we wanted.”

Doron, however, pointed out that the very construction of the spacecraft in a short time and partial operation, and even the presence of the problems that were discovered, were a huge achievement. “A very valuable group of people made a supreme effort to complete a mission on the brink of the impossible and came very close to the goal. They deserve considerable appreciation. The landing failed not because of human error, but because of a sequence of concatenate events.”

During the mission, Ido Antebi, CEO of SpaceIL pointed out. “The spacecraft was not designed to withstand two independent failures, otherwise it would not have cost a hundred million dollars but a billion. We performed all possible tests and simulations before the mission, otherwise we would not have launched it if we were not ready.”

Would avoiding the operation of the layered accelerometer prevent the sequence of failures and allow a proper landing? It is obviously impossible to know, and other problems may have arisen. In the sequence of landing events, shortly after the accelerometer was instructed, reminders were made to avoid it. Was it a human error? Was it impossible to share information between teams? Was it an accumulation of problems in the spacecraft? It depends on who you ask. One thing is certain: during Beresheet’s seven weeks, the team worked much harder than expected because of completely unexpected problems.

In addition to the initial problems and difficulties with the star tracker, the team had a fundamental problem in knowing exactly where the spacecraft was – a problem not shared with the media and the public. The spacecraft’s exact location is calculated by communicating with it, i.e. measuring how long its signal takes to be received by ground stations and thus determining its distance from us. Based on the measurement of the Doppler effect, the change in radio wave frequency, its speed and direction are calculated. This data, together with the angles calculated with the help of the star trackers, provides the information needed to operate the engines in manoeuvring.

Communication was through the Swedish company SSC’s antenna system, but it was accompanied by many malfunctions, especially in the initial weeks, and data required repeated checks. This was compounded by the problem with the star trackers, because their operation sometimes required the spacecraft to rotate on an axis during a course that might change its orbit slightly. It so happened that determining each position required many more hours of work than expected. Work on software extensions also required significant time investment. Engineers cut back or cancelled vacations because of the workload and more than once even slept in an aerospace facility.

The workload on the team increased especially in the last week, where many manoeuvres were planned in orbit around the Moon. In addition to the engineering team’s fatigue, the congestion of routine work led to the cancellation of ground team exercises planned during the mission. Would these practices have been able to expose and counteract in advance the failures that led to the accident? It is impossible to know. The number of possible scenarios is huge, and there was no certainty that the scenario that occurred would have arisen.

In addition to the challenge of landing on the Moon, a science mission led by Prof. Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute of Science was also initially added. The mission relied on a magnetometer to measure local magnetic fields in an effort to better understand the Moon’s geology and its formation processes. The magnetometer was to measure magnetic fields primarily during the landing phases as the spacecraft passed over the Moon at a relatively low altitude, while at the same time transmitting the information in real time, with images, through NASA’s communications network.

Aaronson said: “We turned the magnetometer on for testing early in the mission and it worked well during landing. We got data above 20 miles, but not the most interesting measurements from lower altitudes. The spacecraft probably continued to measure but no longer transmitted data. We were unable to extract useful information from the data obtained. Because the Moon’s magnetic fields are relatively weak and the spacecraft itself created a strong field. Hence the magnetometer operated partially outside its planned range, thus making it difficult to extract information from the data and draw new conclusions about the Moon.”

Another NASA science device was added to the mission shortly before launch, following an agreement with the U.S. Space Agency to use its communications network. The device was a reflector, a small dome five centimetres in diameter, lined with special mirrors designed to return a laser signal from the Moon. It allowed to determine the exact height of the satellite and obviously the position of the spacecraft. For several weeks, Aaronson and satellite operators scanned the crash site in an attempt to detect a laser reflection from the reflector, but in vain.

Before launch, the Arch Lunar Library was installed in the spacecraft.

The Arch Lunar Library is the first in a series of lunar archives by the Arch Mission Foundation in Los Angeles, designed to preserve the records of our civilization for up to billions of years. As mentioned above, it was installed in the Beresheet lunar module.

The Lunar Library contains a 30-million-page archive of human history and civilization, covering all subjects, cultures, nations, languages, genres and time periods. The Library is housed inside a 100-gram nanotechnology device that is similar to a 120 mm DVD. Nevertheless, it is actually composed of 25 nickel disks, each only 40 microns thick, which were made for AMF by NanoArchival. The first four layers contain over 60,000 analog images of book pages, photographs, illustrations and documents, engraved from 150 to 200 dpi, at increasing levels of magnification, by optical nanolithography. The first analog layer is the Front Cover and is visible to the naked eye. It contains 1,500 pages of text and images, as well as holographic logos and diffractive text, and can be easily read with an optical microscope at 100 times magnification or even with a lower power magnifier. Each of the next three analog layers contain 20,000 images of text pages and photos at 1000 times magnification and require a slightly more powerful microscope to be read. Each letter on these layers is the size of a bacillus bacterium.

In the Library’s analog layers there is a specially designed manual that teaches over a million concepts in images and corresponding words in major languages, as well as the content of the Rosetta Wearable disc, from the Long Now Foundation, which teaches the linguistics of thousands of idioms. This is followed by the manual, a series of documents that teach the technical specifications, file formats, and scientific and engineering knowledge needed to access, decode, and understand the digital information encoded in the Library’s deepest layers. Also in the analog layers there are several private archives, including an Israeli time capsule for SpaceIL, containing Israeli culture and history, songs, and children’s drawings. Beneath the Library’s analog layers there are 21 layers of 40-micron-thick nickel sheets, each containing a DVD master.

The digital layers collectively contain over 100 GB of highly compressed datasets, which decompress into nearly 200 GB of content, including English Wikipedia text and XML, as well as tens of thousands of PDFs of books, including fiction, non-fiction, a reference library, textbooks, technical and scientific manuals, etc. The digital layers also contain the Long Now Foundation’s PanLex datasets, a language key for 5,000 languages with 1.5 billion mutual translations.

According to our team of scientific advisors, based on imaging data provided by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Lunar Library is currently believed to have survived the Beresheet crash and be intact on the Moon.

AMF even made a significant contribution to SpaceIL for the lunar launch. AMF is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to create a cultural backup of Earth on other celestial bodies. AMF stated: “Preserving and disseminating knowledge in time and space is the most important task of mankind.”

About four months after the accident, the U.S. magazine “Wired” reported that the organization had also added samples of human DNA and water bears (tardigrades), tiny creatures known to be highly resilient and able to survive in extreme conditions.

In the beginning, the SpaceIL team knew nothing about the initiative of the organization’s U.S. founder, Nova Spivack, to add biological material to the mission. Its apparent presence in the spacecraft raised suspicions of lunar pollution for such presence. The story of the water tardigrades was widely published, but it was announced that the U.S. Civil Aviation Administration (Federal Aviation Administration) had started an investigation against SpaceIL and SpaceX, which launched the spacecraft, even though there was no evidence of biological material from the beginning.

SpaceIL had to hire legal counsel for this purpose in Israel and the United States of America, at a considerable cost. The proceedings ended a few months later without any action being taken against the companies, even after Spivak himself explained in a letter that he was solely responsible.

“The founder of the Arch Foundation stated in various forums that the association was not aware of the problem” – SpaceIL said in a response: “as stated, to date we do not know whether there were indeed tardigrades on the spacecraft. FAA’s inspection ascertained that the organisation was operating correctly and in accordance with state-of-the-art and accepted procedures.”

In an interview Spivak said: “The issue was exaggerated beyond proportion. The United States of America left nearly a hundred bags of human excrement on the Moon. The Chinese landed seeds and grew a plant on the Moon last year. Many space ships crashed into the Moon and polluted it with toxic fuels. Tardigrades are epoxy [epoxy: group containing an oxygen atom bridging two carbon atoms], not alive, and minimal. If a person signs on paper with a ballpoint pen, the ink in that signature contains more contaminating biological material. It was nothing more than a poetic ‘signature’ from the Earth.”

Spivak, however, refused to explicitly confirm that there was actually biological material in the spacecraft. “I cannot prove that there were or were not tardigrades. I can say that the possibility of having live tardigrades on the Moon is zero. The mystery can only be solved by visiting the Moon and examining the remains of the Beresheet and the Library.”

He added: “We helped SpaceIL because the tardigrade story brought Beresheet to the general public’s attention and sparked positive interest among children and students, who still continue to wonder if there are water bears on the Moon. I think that, overall, the event had a positive impact on SpaceIL in terms of image and place in history. We are their big supporters and would love to help them return to the Moon in the future as well. They did nothing wrong and the law was not broken. There was some confusion and I apologize for that.”

Not everyone agrees with him. Doron said: “This is a hallucinatory event and it is not clear to me how he did not end up in jail”. Yigal Harel, who was Head of the spacecraft project at SpaceIL, added: “It is very annoying and it was a stain on the project and on me, and it did not follow the spirit of Beresheet. The engineering team was not involved in determining the disk content – we just had to make sure it met the launch requirements for space. If there were tardigrades on the disk, I guess they did not survive the explosion caused by the fuel flare during the accident”.

Harel added that one of the reasons for closing the procedure was SpaceIL‘s orderly work with the U.S. Civil Aviation Administration. “They have always seen our seriousness, and when that deception occurred, they took that into account.”

SpaceIL was founded in 2011 to participate in Google’s Lunar X-Prize competition, which offered a 20 million dollar prize for a private initiative to land an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon. At the same time as developing early versions of the spacecraft, the three founders, Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Jonathan Weintraub, also worked to make SpaceIL an educational association, using the spacecraft project to encourage children and youth to study science and engineering.

In late 2014 tycoon Maurice Kahn, who helped the founders in the early years, decided to increase his investment in the venture and help recruit additional donors. This enabled the association to hire a professional team of space engineers and carry the venture forward. SpaceIL was the first participant in the competition to sign a launch contract with SpaceX of Elon Musk (a South African entrepreneur with Canadian citizenship, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen). Works continued in March, with the assistance of the aerospace industry, and the spacecraft was built in Musk’s facilities.

By the end of 2017 the budget was exhausted and the road to the Moon seemed farther away than ever. Works continued at IAI’s expense, but the association accumulated a debt to the facility of about 10 million dollars. In early 2018, another blow to the enterprise came when Google announced – after several delays – the end of the competition without a winner. The prize amount, which was part of the enterprise’s planned budget, was deducted from it, and the project was on the verge of collapse. SpaceIL and IAI were seeking additional donors and also asked the government to increase aid.

Google’s competition rules enabled groups to receive government assistance of up to ten percent of the cost of the venture. The Ministry of Science initially pledged to support the spacecraft with 5.5 million new shekels, which at the time accounted for 10 percent of the estimated budget, but paid only about two million new shekels.

When further assistance was requested, the Ministry increased its planned aid, adding 7.25 million new shekels, i.e. just under ten million in total. But the spacecraft’s budget had meanwhile reached 100 million dollars and hence the government could have quadrupled its contribution – and even more so after the decision was made to look outside as well.

Although the Ministry of Science and Technology and Minister Ophir Akunis were very proud of their achievements at the beginning, it now becomes clear that, at the moment of truth, the Ministry did not respond to calls for further increasing the budget and rescuing the Israeli spacecraft project. Minister Akonis, who even flew to Florida to witness a close-range launch, stressed the importance of Beresheet to the State of Israel and repeatedly emphasized his Ministry’s contribution to the project, which he said was within the limits of competition.

However, the one who ultimately rescued Beresheet was still Morris Kahn, who increased the donation amount, out of his own pocket, to over 40 million dollars and made it conditional upon IAI waiving its debt. In the end, IAI agreed on two conditions: full ownership and rights to all of Beresheet’s knowledge and full cooperation in managing the mission, as well as its public relations and publicity.

The Director of the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology, Avi Blasberger, pointed out in response that Bereisheet’s budget increase of over seven million new shekels in 2018 was about one-tenth of the Space Agency’s budget and added to many actions by the Agency and the Ministry of Science. He said: “Our budget increase was an important part of Kahn’s decision to continue the project. We also contributed with one million new shekels to fund the association’s educational activities and 700,000 new shekels to fund the science mission. We also signed an agreement for them with NASA to use the deep space network, which was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to them and they would not have reached it without our efforts. We are also working with NASA to assist them in their next mission”.

The Ministry of Science and Technology further stated: “The Space Agency has initiated and promoted, in cooperation with SpaceIL an educational activity to encourage young men and women to promote exhibitions on space and science and technology studies, as well as the dissemination of SpaceIL‘s activities in the Ministry of Science’s major events, including Israel Space Week, and in various educational programs. The extensive cooperation with the Ministry of Education and SpaceIL basically serves as a power multiplier for the main goal of creating a Beresheet effect in the younger generation.” The Ministry also said that Minister Akonis pledged to double the support for the possible Beresheet 2 raising it to 20 million new shekels.

The Beresheet mission is officially designed to demonstrate Israel’s technological capabilities and create a public impact similar to the Apollo effect of half a century ago, i.e. the great interest that young people in the United States showed in science and technology following the success of the first manned missions to the Moon. Indeed, much of the project’s efforts were focused on public relations, starting with a clear media strategy, namely to produce success at all costs.

Doron said: “With a view to creating solidarity, we built a media campaign designed to turn the spacecraft into something belonging to all of us, with the goal of involving the entire State of Israel in the project. This is the reason why we decided, inter alia, to share – with the public – the problems and difficulties that arose during the mission.”

“The communication strategy was based on the assumption that there was a reasonable possibility we would not be able to land on the Moon, and that we might not even reach it. On the launch date – and even before a precise one was set – we organized an event to introduce the spacecraft to the media,  launched a campaign to choose a name for the module, and selected materials to be sent to the Lunar Library.

“The ceremony for inserting the information disk, including the library, into the spacecraft, was a presentation to the media. The disk was installed into the spacecraft a few days later by the technical team. The public did not know that in order to save costs, the plane that brought Beresheet to the United States stopped in Liege, Belgium, to unload a shipment of vegetables.”

Even during the mission, many resources were invested in promoting the media strategy and public relations. Doron added: “The spacecraft ‘selfie’ with the Earth was intended to be a victory image in case we did not reach the Moon and, in order to photograph it, we negotiated with the U.S. Civil Aviation Administration, which initially did not approve the near-Earth photograph, but eventually responded positively. The ‘selfie’ has already had a significant impact on us because it had to ‘waste’ a computer command file.”

In October 2018, about four months before the launch, a cooperation agreement was signed with NASA, which allowed SpaceIL to use the U.S. Agency space network to communicate with the vehicle in a relatively wide bandwidth and transmit a lot of information in a short time with advanced antennas at several sites around the world. The engineering teams were required to make a huge effort to establish the communication interface with the NASA system in a short time. One of the engineers who worked on the project said: “We did a two-year job in four months”.

Doron added: “The insistence on investing a lot of resources in the communication network with NASA’s was mainly to enable us to send images from the landing in real time. We made many efforts and preparations to get a successful message even if the success was not complete.” In the end, the decision may have been right: the “selfie” of the start of landing on the Moon, was the closest thing to landing from the mission.

“Even though we did not land, the mission was a huge success,” Doron concluded. “Both the Americans and the Russians failed many times before landing softly. The Chinese were the only ones who succeeded the first time, and we were the only fools who had the audacity to attempt a landing on such a first-ever mission. In spite of the many difficulties, we have come a long way.”

Despite justified anger over Spivak’s move and the price of his conduct, there may be something in his remarks about the media effect of the tardigrade affair. The debate over whether the “water bears” can continue to live on the Moon seems to have reached a wider audience than those generally interested in space missions, including children and young people. After the revelations about the Beresheet mission, the issue of life elsewhere continues to resonate on social media even today.

SpaceIL also wanted to emphasize the mission’s educational impact: “Beresheet brought the State of Israel to an unprecedented achievement and made the country the seventh in the world to orbit the Moon [and I would add, even touch on it]. Although there was no soft landing on the Moon, it is important to remember that the Beresheets’ main mission was there, on a celestial body. The Israeli Apollo effect achieved unprecedented success insofar as not only did all Israeli children think, learn and dream about space and the Moon. The audacity and engineering capability that the entire team demonstrated in the mission is extraordinary on any global scale.”

Has the Beresheet effect reached the halls of academia as well? The only institution in the country offering undergraduate studies in space engineering is Technion (Israel Institute of Technology).

A review of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering revealed that 110 undergraduate students were admitted to its courses in 2020, up from 97 in the previous year, an increase of about 13% overall. According to Faculty Dean Prof. Tal Shima, the increase may be due to the success, exposure and media coverage of the Israeli mission to the Moon, but he noted that the Faculty has also opened a new program of excellence, in cooperation with the Israel Defence Forces, and is also attracting students.

Besides its educational and public impact, it appears that the Beresheet mission also had a direct impact on space exploration, thus demonstrating it is possible to reach the Moon with a small, inexpensive spacecraft. As Antebi maintained: “When you look at the companies that have won NASA competitions for unmanned spacecraft to the Moon, you see that their budgets for these projects are on our scale: tens of million dollars, not a billion dollars. And thanks to our achievement.”

According to the original plan, SpaceIL was to end space operations upon completion of the Beresheet mission. All engineers received early termination letters, and the association was only to continue its educational activities and exploit the space mission to that effect. However, soon after it became clear that the spacecraft had crashed into the Moon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised: “We will try again. We reached the Moon but we want to land more softly and safely.” Two days later, SpaceIL President Kahn announced: “We are working on Beresheet 2 as of today.” As a result, layoffs were postponed for some of the engineers who had been left temporarily to work on analysing the accident and begin drafting the next report.

Some of the engineers also tried to start new projects based on the knowledge gained with Beresheet. Nevertheless, because the property rights had passed to the aerospace industry and there was no funding for another project, all were eventually dismissed. About two months later, SpaceIL management announced that Beresheet 2 had been cancelled and that “trying to repeat a trip to the Moon is quite challenging.”

Some of Beresheet’s engineers joined other space agencies, while others formed independent space companies or are in the process of doing so.  

One of them is Harel, which has recently founded WeSpace, a commercial company that plans to develop innovative vehicles to visit lava caves on the Moon. These are natural caves created as a result of the first volcanic activity on the Moon and have not been explored so far, although they have great potential, for example as a radiation shelter for astronauts. They also hope to find ice, as the caves are not exposed to sunlight.

Harel promised: “We have innovative development in the capacity to reach these places. At such stage there are highly qualified members of SpaceIL working with us voluntarily. Once we manage to raise funds, most of them will join us. The space investment market is huge, and we have an advantage because very few companies are active in deep space – and this is the next frontier.”

Nevertheless, starting in late 2020, it seems that SpaceIL‘s next mission will still be to the Moon. Kfir Damari, one of SpaceIL‘s three founders and vice-President for education. “We are planning a spacecraft very similar to Beresheet, but with more emphasis on science missions, and perhaps with an additional component such as a satellite that will remain in orbit around the Moon. We want value added to the mission beyond the landing itself. The previous experience did not accurately express our perception. Now the assumption is that we do not want to repeat the same task, but to develop and build another spacecraft. It is a completely different challenge.” Jonathan Weintraub, one of the founders of SpaceIL, who is involved in planning the new mission added: “We will carry out a task that will excite and inspire, We have an opportunity to join the international effort to land humans on the Moon, and the question is how Israel can contribute to that.”

Despite not winning the Google competition, SpaceIL received a sort of “consolation prize” of 1 million dollars from the organizers of the aforementioned competition. Last month, the Blavatnik Family Foundation announced an additional 1 million dollar donation to the enterprise. As Damari explained: “The money is earmarked for continued educational activity, and the latest donation is aimed at starting the first works on the next spacecraft. This has enabled us to recruit a new CEO, Shimon Sarid, who will start planning the next mission. Even if we manage to raise money from other sources – such as the State or fees from scientific tests – I imagine that most of the budget will come from philanthropy.”

Beresheet 2 itself could eventually land on the Moon in another form. IAI’s Space facility is partnering with the U.S. company Firefly, which is bidding for the Beresheet spacecraft in a NASA competition to launch unmanned spacecraft to the Moon for resuming manned flights under NASA’s Artemis program.

The U.S. spacecraft is almost identical to the Israeli Beresheet and is based on knowledge and developments that now belong to the aerospace industry. Damari concluded: “We wish them success. We have also developed the spacecraft to advance the knowledge of all mankind.” And I add: to spread it to the Universe through the Lunar Library.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Artificial Intelligence and Advances in Chemistry (II)

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As previously seen, chemical representation types have developed several sub-types over recent years. Unfortunately, however, there is no clear answer as to which representation is the most efficient for a particular problem. For example, matrix representations are often the first choice for attribute prediction but, in recent years, graphs have also emerged as strong alternatives. It is also important to note that we can combine several types of representations depending on the problem.

Hence how (and which) representations can be used to explore chemical space? We have already said that string representations are suitable for generative modelling. Initially, graphical representations were not easy to model by using generative models, but more recently their combination with the Varational Autoencoder (VAE) has made them a very attractive factor.

In machine learning a variational autoencododer is an artificial neural network architecture introduced by Diederik P. Kingma e Max Welling. It is part of the families of probabilistic graphical models and variational Baysenian methods (i.e. family of methods for the approximation of integrals).

VAEs have proved particularly useful since they enable us to have a more machine-readable continuous representation. A study used VAEs to show that both string and graph representations can be encoded and decoded in a space where molecules are no longer discrete, but can be decoded into continuous vectors with real values of molecule representations. The Euclidean distance between different vectors will correspond to chemical similarity. Another model is added between the encoder and the decoder to predict the attribute to be reached at any point in space.

But while generating molecules per se is a simple task – we can take any generative model and apply it to the representation we desire – generating structures that are chemically valid and display the properties we desire is a much more challenging issue.  

The initial approaches to achieve this goal imply models on existing data sets and their subsequent use for transfer to learning. The model is fine-tuned through a calibration data set to enable the generation of structures oriented towards specific properties, which can then be further calibrated using various algorithms. Many examples of this imply the use of string representations or graphs. However, difficulties are encountered with respect to the chemical validity or desired properties when these are not successfully obtained. Furthermore, the fact of relying on data sets limits the search space and introduces potentially undesirable biases.

An attempt at improvement is to use Markov Decision Process (MDP) to ensure the validity of chemical structures and optimise the MDP itself to achieve the desired properties through deep Q-learning (a model-free reinforcement learning algorithm to derive the value of an action in a particular state). In mathematics, an MDP is a discrete-time stochastic control process (a function or signal, with values given at a chosen set of times in the integer domain). It provides a mathematical framework for modelling the decision-making process in situations where outcomes are partly random and partly under the control of a decision-maker. MDPs are useful for studying optimisation problems solved by means of programming. They are used in many disciplines, including robotics, automatic control, economics and manufacturing. The MDP is named after the Russian mathematician Andrej Andreevič Markov (1856-1922).

A particular advantage of this model is that it enables users to visualise the preference of different actions: (a) to visualise the degree of preference for certain actions (1 being the highest preference, 0 the least preferred); and (b) take steps to maximise the quantitative estimation of the drug similarity to the starting molecule.

Although still in its infancy, the use of Artificial Intelligence to explore the chemical space is already showing great promise. It provides us with a new paradigm to explore the chemical space and a new way to test theories and hypotheses. Although empiricism is not as accurate as experimental research, computationally-based methods will remain an active research area for the foreseeable future and will already be part of any research group.

So far we have seen how Artificial Intelligence can help discover new chemicals more quickly by exploiting generative algorithms to search the chemical space. Although this is one of the most noteworthy use cases, there are also others. Artificial Intelligence is being applied to many other problems in chemistry, including:

1. Automated work in laboratory. Machine learning techniques can be used to speed up synthesis workflows. An approach uses self-driving laboratories to automate routine tasks, optimise resource expenditure and save time. A relatively new but noteworthy example is the use of the Ada robotic platform to automate the synthesis, processing and characterisation of materials. Ada tools are developed to provide predictions and models to automate repetitive processes, using machine learning and AI technologies to collect, understand and process data, so that resources can be dedicated to more value-added activities.

Ada is basically a laboratory that discovers and develops new organic thin-film materials without any human supervision. Its productivity is making most recent graduates uncomfortable. The entire thin-film fabrication cycle, from the mixing of chemical precursors, through deposition and thermal annealing, to the final electrical and optical characterisation, takes only twenty minutes. An additional aid is the use of a mobile chemical robot that can operate tools and perform measurements on 688 experiments over eight days.

2. Chemical reaction prediction. Classification models can be used to predict the type of reaction that will occur, or simplify the problem and predict whether a certain chemical reaction will occur.

3. Chemical data mining. Chemistry, like many other disciplines, has an extensive scientific literature for the study of trends and correlations. A notable example is the data mining of the vast amounts of information provided by the Human Genome Project to identify trends in genomic data.

4. Finally, although the new data-driven trend is developing rapidly and has had a great impact, it also entails many new challenges, including the gap between computation and experiment. Although computational methods aim to help achieve the experiment goals, the results of the former are not always transferable to the latter. For example, when using machine learning to find candidate molecules, we have to bear in mind that molecules are rarely unique in their synthetic pathways, and it is often difficult to know whether an unexplored chemical reaction will work in practice. Even if it works, there are problems with the yield, purity and isolation of the compound under study.

5. The gap between computational and experimental work becomes even wider, as computational methods use metrics that are not always transferable to the latter, such as Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), which describes all phenomena involving charged particles interacting by means of the electromagnetic force, so that its experimental verification may not be feasible. There is also the need for a better database. However, the problem of the lack of benchmarks arises. Since the entire chemical space is infinite, it is hoped to have a sufficiently large sample which may help in subsequent generalisation. Nevertheless, most of today’s databases are designed for different purposes and often use different file formats. Some of them have no validation procedures for submissions or are not designed for AI tasks. It should also be said that most of the databases available have a limited scope of chemical data: they only contain certain types of molecules. Furthermore, most tasks involving the use of Artificial Intelligence for chemical predictions have no reference platform, thus making the comparisons between many different studies impracticable.  

One of the main reasons for the success of AlphaFold – which, as already seen, is an AI programme developed by DeepMind (Alphabet/Google) to predict the 3D structure of proteins – lies in the fact that it has provided all of the above as part of the critical evaluation of Protein Structure Prediction, i.e. the inference of a protein 3D structure from its amino acid sequence, e.g. the prediction of its secondary and tertiary structure from its primary structure. This evaluation demonstrates the need for organised efforts to streamline, simplify and improve other tasks involving chemical prediction.

In conclusion, as we continue to advance in the digital age, new algorithms and more powerful hardware will continue to lift the veil on previously intractable problems. The integration of Artificial Intelligence into chemical discovery is still in its infancy, but it is already a commonplace to hear the term “data-driven discovery”.

Many companies, whether pharmaceutical giants or newly founded start-ups, have adopted many of the above technologies and brought greater automation, efficiency and reproducibility to chemistry. Artificial Intelligence enables us to conduct science on an unprecedented scale and in recent years this has generated many initiatives and attracted funding that will continue to lead us further into an era of autonomous scientific discovery. (2. continued).

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Science & Technology

From rockets to spider silk, young scientists wow the jury – and each other!

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The winners of the top prize at this year’s EU Contest for Young Scientists. © European Commission, 2023

The 34th annual edition of an EU contest for teenage researchers wrapped up this past week with participants from Canada, Denmark, Poland and Portugal claiming the top prize. 

By Sofía Manzanaro 

Inês Alves Cerqueira of Portugal just spent five days in Brussels and left with a top EU prize for young scientists. 

But ask 17-year-old Cerqueira what she remembers most about the event, which featured 136 contestants from three dozen countries in Europe and beyond, and the much-coveted award gets hardly any mention. 

No worries 

‘I loved listening to all the projects and having conversations about science without having to worry about people judging me or anything like that,’ she said as the 34th annual EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) drew to a close in the Belgian capital. 

Worries or not, Cerqueira and the other contestants aged 14 to 20 years were judged by a jury of 22 distinguished scientists and engineers from across Europe as part of the official competition. It featured 85 science projects in the running for first, second and third awards that shared a total of €62 000 in prize money. 

The rewards also include scholarships and visits to institutions such as the European Space Agency, nuclear-research organisation CERN and a forum that brings together eight of the largest research bodies in Europe. 

All the participants had already won first prizes in national science competitions. At EUCYS, four projects won the top prize and received €7 000 each. 

Cerqueira claimed hers with two teammates: Afonso Jorge Soares Nunes and Mário Covas Onofre. The three Portuguese, who come from the northern coastal city of Porto, are exploring the potential of spider silk to treat bone diseases including osteoporosis. 

The EUCYS projects, which ranged from rocket science and chronic-pain drugs to climate demographics and river pollution, were as varied as the backgrounds of the participants, who came from as far away as Canada and South Korea. 

Canadian Elizabeth Chen was another first-prize winner for a project on a cancer therapy. The two other top-award recipients were Maksymilian Gozdur of Poland for an entry on judicial institutions and Martin Stengaard Sørensen of Denmark for an initiative on rocket propulsion systems. 

Bright minds 

‘EUCYS is about rewarding the enthusiasm, passion and curiosity of Europe’s next generation of bright minds finding new solutions to our most pressing challenges,’ said Marc Lemaître, the European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation. 

Eagerness and spirit were on general display at the event. So was camaraderie. 

Noemi Marianna Pia, Pietro Ciceri and Davide Lolla, all 17 year olds from Italy, said they felt themselves winners by having earned spots at EUCYS for a project on sustainable food and described the event as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to mix with fellow young scientists from around the world. 

The three Italians want to develop plant-based alternatives to animal proteins. At their exhibition stand, they talked with contagious excitement about their research while holding dry chickpeas and soybeans. 

Lolla said that, while his pleasures include tucking into a juicy steak, he feels a pressing need to reduce meat consumption to combat climate change and preserve biodiversity. 

Sparkling ideas  

On the other side of the venue, 16-year-old Eleni Makri from Cyprus recalled how a classroom chat about summer plans sparked an idea to use seagrass on many of the island’s beaches to produce fertiliser. 

Her project partner, Themis Themistocleous, eagerly joined the conversation to explain how seagrass can recover phosphate from wastewater. The process involves thermal treatment of the seagrass. 

Themistocleous also expressed pride at having been chosen by Makri as her teammate for the competition. 

‘There were a thousand people, but she chose me!’ he said with a wide grin as Makri playfully shook her head in response. 

Science can also be the outcome of a partnership rather than its trigger. Metka Supej and Brina Poropat of Slovenia were brought together by sports, particularly rowing. 

After years of training on the same team, they decided to research the impact of energy drinks on heart-rate recovery. 

Multiple paths 

As they cheered for one another while preparing to say goodbye, the participants at EUCYS 2023 offered a glimpse of the combination of qualities – personal, intellectual, social and even professional – that turn young people into pioneering researchers. 

Gozdur, the Polish top-prize winner, discovered his passion for judicial matters while working at a law firm. Before that, he wanted to study medicine and even dabbled in the film industry. 

His EUCYS project drew on French and Polish criminal-procedure codes to examine the prospects for “restorative justice” – a central element of which is rehabilitation of the convict. The conclusion reached was that ‘penal populism is not beneficial to any party, especially to the victim’s,’ according to a description

Now 19 years old and a law student in Warsaw, Gozdur said he would like international institutions to take up his work so that it influences ‘real-life’ legal norms in the future. 

‘EUCYS showed me that my idea is actually relevant and that it may help societies,’ he said. ‘I would like to fight more for my project.’ 

For Sørensen, the Danish recipient of the top prize, venturing into rocket science as a teenager was no surprise. From the city of Odense, he began computer programming at the age of 10 and was inspired by his father – an electrical engineer – to look into engineering. 

Now 19 years old, Sørensen is striving in his research to create cheaper rocket engines. His project, entitled “Development of small regeneratively cooled rocket propulsion systems”, demonstrated how small rocket engines can be cooled by using a fuel that is a mixture of ethanol and nitrous oxide. 

Sørensen said he’s unsure what his future path will be while expressing interest in pursuing his rocket research.  

‘I would like to continue working on this project,’ he said. ‘And I would like to do something that matters in the world.’ 

Chen, the top-award winner from Canada, has long had a passion for cancer research. 

From childhood, she became involved in fundraisers for a Canadian cancer association and was puzzled about why significant donations had produced no cure. Now 17 years old and in high school, Chen is seeking a therapy that would avoid the often-considerable side effects of conventional treatments. 

Her project focuses on a novel form of immunotherapy based on “CAR-T cells”, which are genetically altered so they can fight cancer more effectively. 

‘I am really interested in going into university right away and then hopefully getting involved in some cancer research because that is just so interesting to me,’ said Chen, who comes from Edmonton. 

The three Portuguese winners – Cerqueira, Nunes and Onofre – said they have developed a partnership as strong as their spider silk and plan to pursue their research while at university with the hope – one day – of conducting clinical studies. 

Called “SPIDER-BACH2”, their project reflects an awareness that osteoporosis will become a growing health challenge worldwide as people live longer. It aims for in vitro production of bone-building cells known as osteoblasts. 

‘The future is bright for us,’ said Nunes. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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Science & Technology

Space Exploration: The Unification of Past, Present and Future

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An accreting SMBH in a fairly local galaxy with very large and extended radio jets. © R. Timmerman; LOFAR & Hubble Space Telescope

The enchanting realm of space exploration continues to unfold new wonders with every passing day, sparking a growing interest among individuals to embark on their own cosmic journeys. While exploring space with the aid of private companies that charge fortunes is a privilege usually reserved for billionaire adventurers, there are occasional exceptions that captivate our attention.

Just a few days ago on 8th September, Virgin Galactic’s third spaceflight set out on a brief mission that seized the spotlight due to some interesting details. Three private explorers, Ken Baxter, Timothy Nash, and Adrian Reynard, two pilots and one instructor, were onboard ‘VSS Unity’. However, the presence of two different and unique passengers added a twist to the journey: fossils of our ancient human ancestors. The fossil remains of two ancient species, two-million-years-old Australopithecus sediba and 250,000 years old Homo naledi,  held in carbon fiber, emblazoned with the South African flag,  were part of the Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft ‘crew’ for a one-hour ride, making them the oldest human species to visit space. Australopithecus sediba’s clavicle (collarbone) and Homo naledi’s thumb bone were chosen for the voyage. Both fossil remains were discovered in the Cradle of Humankind – home to human ancestral remains in South Africa.

The episode undoubtedly prompts questions regarding the underlying reason behind sending these fossil remains into the vast expanse of space in the first place. It profoundly underscores the immense power of symbols, speaking to us in ways words cannot. This voyage was not just a journey through space, but a soulful homage to our ancestors. Their invaluable contributions have sown the seeds of innovation and growth, propelling us to unimaginable heights. Now, as we stretch our hands towards the heavens, we remember them – and in this gesture, we symbolise our eternal gratitude and awe for the path they paved, allowing humanity to quite literally aim for the skies. As Timothy Nash said, ‘It was a moment to contemplate the enterprising spirit of our earliest ancestors, who had embarked on a journey toward exploration and innovation years ago.’

Moreover, the clavicle of the Australopithecus sediba was deliberately chosen given that it was discovered by nine-year-old Mathew Berger, son of Lee Berger, a National Geographic Society explorer, who played a major role in discovering both species and handed over the remains to Timothy Nash for the journey. This story serves as a touching testament to the boundless potential of youth, showing us that even the young can be torchbearers in the realm of science, lighting the path of discovery with their boundless curiosity. The unearthing of Homo naledi in 2013 wasn’t just about finding bones; it was a window into our past. This ancient ancestor, with its apelike shoulders and human-like feet, hands, and brain, wasn’t just a distant relative. They were artists and inventors, leaving behind symbols and tools in their cave homes as a silent testament to their legacy. This led to the discovery of more than 1,500 specimens from one of the biggest excavations in Africa’s history. It wasn’t just about digging up the past; it was about piecing together the jigsaw of our very essence, deepening our understanding of the roots and journey of our kind, especially in the heartland of South Africa. Each discovery, each bone, whispered tales of our shared journey, of beginnings, growth, and the undying spirit of exploration.

For those involved in the venture, the occasion was awe-inspiring as it connected our ancient roots to space exploration. However, not everyone is pleased. The event has sparked criticism from  archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists, many of whom have called it a mere publicity stunt and raised serious concerns over such an act given that it poses risks to the care of the precious fossils. It was further argued that the act was ethically wrong, and lacked  any concrete scientific justifications.

Setting aside this debate, the episode connects chronicles of our past with the boundless potential of humankind’s future. It celebrates the age-old quest for exploration shared across millennia. This journey, captivating in its essence, elevates space exploration to a sacred place where fossils, once cradled by the Earth’s soil, now dance among the stars. Just as with pivotal moments in space history, it is also a compelling cue to states that are currently lagging in this race to timely embrace the possibilities of this frontier. Countries, like Pakistan, should draw inspiration from such milestones to fervently chart their own celestial courses.

Upon their return to South Africa, the relics would be displayed in museums and other institutions, offering a chance to the public to view them and draw inspiration. As we witness the rise of commercial space travel, this unique journey provides glimpses of the multifaceted nature of space exploration – one that prompts us to reflect on our past, engage actively with the present and anticipate the future that awaits us. Something Pakistan’s national poet Allama Iqbal eloquently captured in one his verses, translated as: I see my tomorrow (future) in the mirror of my yesterday (past).

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