The MEIDEX project which was conceived, built and managed by Tel Aviv University scientists took photographs of ‘sprites’ – red flashes of electricity shooting up from thunderclouds 13 miles (20 km) into the ionosphere.Leaders of Israel’s space program foresee a tightening of the bond between Israel and the U.S. Space agencies following the Columbia Shuttle disaster which killed the crew’s seven members including Israel’s first astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s eulogy of Ramon, in which he reiterated both the American and Israeli commitment to sending another Israeli astronaut to space, officially set into motion the next phase in Israel’s space program.

“We are already researching experiments for an additional astronaut to conduct on a shuttle,” Aby Har Even, Director General of Israel’s Space Program told Israel 21c. Following the lead of Israel’s space program’s founders, Har Even is adamant that an astronaut will only be sent if he is able to add to the mission with a feasible scientific mission.

And despite the gap in budgets, (NASA’s annual budget is $15 billion while the annual budget of the Israel Space Program is $1 million.) Har Even said Israel can contribute to NASA’s program.

Most of Israel’s aide is scientific, from its research into sprites (rarely photographed electrical discharges that shoot up from the tops of thunderstorms into the Earth’s ionosphere) and observations of solar storms from the Mt. Hermon observatory.

An Israeli-developed camera aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle captured the first calibrated images of ‘elves’ – a luminous red, bagel-shaped, electrical phenomenon that occurs above a thunderstorm in less than a millisecond – and of ‘sprites’, red flashes of electricity shooting up from thunderclouds 13 miles (20 km) into the ionosphere

The camera that took the photographs was part of the MEIDEX project – the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment – an experiment conceived, built, and managed by Tel Aviv University scientists.

According to Yoav Yair, an atmospheric scientist at the Open University of Israel in Tel Aviv and project coordinator for Israeli experiments on the shuttle science mission, these were the first scientific images of an elf ever recorded from space.

“This is the first time we’ve successfully taken such images with a calibrated instrument from the shuttle and it’s causing really great excitement among our colleagues around the world,” he said. MEIDEX is being discussed as a possible permanent addition to the International Space Station.

While the manned exploration of space and the scientific experiments conducted there are useful, Brig. Gen. (res) Professor Haim Eshed, one of the fathers of Israel’s Ofek satellite program, believes future space exploration must make itself commercially viable.

Israel’s advantage in that realm lies in its expertise in miniaturization, states Eshed. Israel’s small budget forced it to develop small but powerful satellites, which are easily convertible to commercial use. Budget constraints (costs of a launch rise exponentially with the weight of the payload,) compelled Israel to produce what Eshed calls one of the best “size for price” satellites in the world.

Israel’s satellites like the AMOS, the EROS imaging satellite, or Ofek are smaller and lighter than American satellites, but include up to 90% of the same hardware, he says.

In fact, Israel can produce, light, quality satellites for as low as $10 million each. For comparison’s sake, the launch alone of the Columbia cost NASA $450 million.

While budgets tug at its ability to see its designs built, the Israeli scientific community has “conceptual ability that is second to none in the world,” said the Technion’s space and aviation expert Moshe Gelman

The father of the Israeli space program, Professor Yuval Ne’eman prophesies an Israeli hand in the conceptual design of future space craft. Dubbed “a crazy dreamer” by Yitzhak Rabin in the 1970s for his planning of future Israeli satellites, Ne’eman sees Israelis developing projects as the massive, and still theoretical “sail-like structures” that will use solar energy to send attached space-craft hurtling through the solar system and beyond.

The use of satellites can only lead so far. Ultimately, believes Ne’eman, “robots have limitations. As long as there isn’t a man in space, there will be questions that will remain inconceivable and untested There is no choice, we need to know what there is out there beyond the atmosphere.”