Exploring the Physical World

Truly Reaching for the Stars in 2016

E-News, January 2016 • TAGS: Astrophysics, Space


The Mars rovers. A spacecraft landing on a comet. Space tourism. Even the Star Wars reboot: Thanks to such thrilling events, interest in space may not have been this high since the Space Race. The decades since America’s moon landing have brought outer space closer than ever, thanks to the development of technologies that are transforming the field of astrophysics from one that is largely theoretical to one that is dynamic and happening in real time.

The Weizmann Institute of Science, always prescient, is ahead of the curve on space research, too. Several years ago, President Prof. Daniel Zajfman – who also just happens to ​study deep-space conditions – began a major recruitment effort that brought some of the world’s brightest young astrophysicists to campus, where they are not only boosting the Institute’s research, but also placing Israel front and center on the global space stage. Meet a few of our stars:

    • Ran Budnik searches for dark matter, suspected to make up significantly more of our world than “normal” matter but which has never been detected. He has long worked on the XENON project, an international consortium of scientists searching for this missing ingredient. He now leads the Institute team working on the next-generation XENON1T, including developing the project’s extremely sensitive equipment – which, it is hoped, will enable scientists to finally solve the dark-matter mystery. XENON1T just launched at Italy’s Gran Sasso Underground Laboratory.

      The goal of the XPRIZE is to land the first privately funded craft on the moon – and SpaceIL recently won the first launch contract. As an XPRIZE executive said, “The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated ... It gives all of us at XPRIZE and Google great pride to say, ‘the new space race is on!’”


    • Oded Aharonson came to Weizmann from Caltech, where he “drove” Mars rovers for NASA missions. At Weizmann – where he continues collaborating with colleagues from Caltech and NASA – he heads the Helen Kimmel Center for Planetary Science and the Minerva Center for Life under Extreme Planetary Conditions. Prof. Aharonson continues to be an investigator on NASA space missions, such as the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the Cassini mission to Saturn. He is also the mission scientist of Space IL, the Israeli not-for-profit competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE.


    • Avishay Gal-Yam has become a world leader in investigating supernovae (massive exploding stars) – for example, he has discovered previously unimagined new types of supernovae. He is a leader of the team (involving Caltech, NASA, and others) developing the Weizmann Institute’s first satellite, a super-efficient craft that will seek out space phenomena such as supernovae and black holes.

      Some of Prof. Gal-Yam’s far-off discoveries have even been made on campus, thanks to its five-year-old Martin S. Kraar Observatory, of which he is scientific director. Named for the American Committee’s late former executive vice president, the observatory has already made major contributions to the field. For example, in May 2011, it was among the first observatories in the world to image the Type Ia supernova that exploded in galaxy M51.


    • Itay Halevy’s insights about the early oceans and atmospheres of Mars and Earth have shed new light on the conditions that shaped the planets and allowed life to evolve. For example, it’s clear from the abundance of dry Martian riverbeds, lakes, and valleys that water once flowed there, but when, and where did it go? Dr. Halevy and a collaborator at Brown University created a new model that suggests a compelling new answer: short, violent periods of intense volcanic activity that released greenhouse gases, temporarily warming the Red Planet and turning ice into flowing water. Later, when the planet cooled down again, the water re-froze – leaving behind the ice we now see.


    • Yohai Kaspi studies planetary atmosphere, gravity, and storms. Part of NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, he was the first to create a 3D computer model to help scientists understand the extreme and violent winds that exist on such giant planets: Uranus and Neptune, for example, have winds of well over 600,000 miles per hour, storms as big as Earth, and massive weather systems that last for years.


In very recent news, it was announced that the Institute is part of a new European mission to Jupiter – and Dr. Kaspi is leading the Weizmann team, including developing a super-precise atomic clock that will help analyze atmospheric conditions.This will be the first time that an Israel device travels beyond Earth’s orbit.

Space is the place, and the Weizmann Institute of Science is helping to lead Israel’s – and the world’s – venture into the unknown. These brilliant young scientists are reaching for the stars. Help them make it so: be their partner in the most exciting, compelling, and important research on Earth.