Research Summary

There has never been a more exciting time to study planetary science. Space missions and orbiting telescopes are providing a wealth of data on planets and their moons, and super-computers enable scientists to build detailed, dynamic models of their atmospheres, including the most important (for humans) planet of all, Earth. 

The challenges of planetary exploration and science are extraordinary: vast distances, extreme conditions, limited windows of opportunity to make observations, long time scales between launching probes and reaping the first data, and the uncertainties of exploring barely known regions far from Earth. These challenges attract some of the most creative and inventive thinkers in science and technology. The rewards of understanding our own planet, its context in the solar system and wider universe cannot be understated. At a time of rapid and dramatic changes in our planet’s atmospheric dynamics, expanding our knowledge base provides us with a broader perspective on our own world and the uniqueness or commonality of climate change on a planetary scale. 
The new Center will nurture novel collaborations in topics such as planetary surface geology and geophysics, planetary geochemistry and exobiology, planetary atmospheres and climate, exoplanets, and others. It will enable the establishment of a graduate studies program in planetary sciences, and, ultimately, pave the way for the Institute to take a leading role in national and international space research initiatives.

A New Generation of Satellites

planetary scienceTechnological advances now make it possible to create miniature satellites with powerful capabilities, but modest mass. Israel is a leader in the new generation of mini-satellites that can be launched for a fraction of the cost of conventional, more massive space vehicles. 

Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science are working with colleagues at Caltech, Tel Aviv University, the Israeli government (ISA and Defense agencies), Israeli industry (Elbit and Israeli Aircraft Industries),  and universities in Canada and India to design and build the Ultraviolet Transient Explorer. Israel's first research satellite looking into space will carry an array of UV cameras capable of an unprecedentedly wide synoptic field-of-view survey in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum. Its primary purpose is to search for supernovae shock breakouts, which occur when, and reveal how, stars explode. The cameras will be looking for evidence of "big" ultraviolet spectral events, such as  undetected types of events such as stellar disruptions caused by black holes, or perhaps the merger of neutron stars. Whenever such a major event is detected, scientists on Earth will be alerted to point more advanced spectrometers and other instruments at the location to capture the lifetime of the phenomenon. They also hope to detect the electro-magnetic counterpart of gravitational-wave sources expected from new earthbound and orbiting telescopes. 
The UV instruments can also detect very small events – such as the slight dip in the light coming from a distant star that signals the presence of a planet. By aiming the camera at bright, spectrally active areas of the sky, there is the exciting potential of finding new planets around young hot stars, addressing the fundamental question of how early do planets form after stars are born?  The detectors could also measure the life-threatening UV flares stars sometimes unleash, affecting the habitability of distant worlds.