Last updated November 11th 2018

Scientists everywhere – and space enthusiasts, too – are waiting with bated breath for the first images from the NASA Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, now making history as it orbits the sun, due in early December. It is an Israeli-engineered sensor, which is capturing the high-resolution images of the sun’s atmosphere, including coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar wind.

“Parker Solar Probe is going to answer questions about solar physics that we’ve puzzled over for more than six decades,” Parker Solar Probe Project scientist Nicola Fox of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement. “It’s a spacecraft loaded with technological breakthroughs that will solve many of the largest mysteries about our star, including finding out why the sun’s corona is so much hotter than its surface.”

One of those technological breakthroughs onboard the probe is the space-qualified CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) sensor.

Israel’s integrated circuit manufacturer TowerJazz, based in Migdal Ha’emek, about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Tel Aviv, and SRI International, an independent nonprofit research center, collaborated on the high-performance CMOS imager for the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

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“TowerJazz has been working with SRI for several years to develop custom technology to support US government imaging applications,” Mike Scott, Director of TowerJazz USA Aerospace & Defense, said in a press statement last month.

TowerJazz’s CMOS image sensors and pixel technology are used in photography, industrial, medical, automotive and consumer applications, including high-end camera phones and 3D cameras. “We are very pleased to see our teamwork take flight in this exciting endeavor by NASA.”

This is the first time NASA has sent a spacecraft into the sun’s atmosphere. Headlines from around the world show that the global community is eagerly watching this engineering feat unfold.

The Parker Solar Probe’s mission is to understand the corona – the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun – in order to protect our technology-dependent society from space weather threats and solar wind. The data will also help in planning future space missions to the Moon or Mars.

For local engineers and the local space community, Israel’s sensor onboard the NASA spacecraft is an exciting moment. While outwardly a small contribution to the overall Solar Probe project, without the Israeli-engineered sensor there would be no images.

“Israel has amazing tech capabilities and people around the world appreciate the ingenuity of the Israeli space industry,” Kfir Damari, SpaceIL co-founder and engineer, tells NoCamels. Damari adds that the blue-and-white sensor joins a long list of Israeli components used in international space projects, giving the example of the 2016 Schiaparelli Mars Lander, which used a propulsion system developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

“I believe there will be more collaborations in the future,” says Damari.

Damari and co-founders/engineers Yariv Bash and Yonatan Winetraub, founded SpaceIL in 2011. They plan to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the Moon in early 2019.

“Space is something that is exciting. For SpaceIL, our mission is not just about landing a spacecraft on the Moon. For us, the bigger vision is getting people excited about space, science and technology, so I think any added project that gets people in the street talking about science and technology is amazing,” says Damari.

Moreover, those familiar with Israel’s expertise in sensor technology, aren’t surprised that an Israeli firm was part of the tech side of this latest NASA mission.

Israeli sensor technology, after all, is Grade A.

“It should not come as a surprise that Israel is providing key sensor technology for the NASA Solar Probe. Israel has world-leading vision and imaging technology, that power applications as diverse as autonomous driving (Mobileye), chip inspection (Orbotech), airborne agricultural imaging (Taranis), and next-generation spectrometry (Consumer Physics),” Jonathan Medved, serial entrepreneur and CEO of OurCrowd, tells NoCamels.

“It is indeed pretty cool that while Israel is about to land on the Moon we are also flying close to the Sun. Just goes to prove that even a small tiny spec of a country like Israel can dream big and power mankind’s efforts to reach the stars,” says Medved.

Indeed, Israel’s size has never halted its tech capabilities.

“Like in every aspect of Israeli research and tech, we make do with about a quarter of the budget that an American lab or team might secure, sometimes even less. So, thinking in the face of fewer resources and imminent adversity makes for a great way of innovating,” Karin Kloosterman, founder of Flux, a technology company building Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and artificial intelligence, tells NoCamels.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory built the unmanned spacecraft that launched in mid-August. On Monday, already on its first of seven Venus gravity assist flybys, the probe broke two space records by making the closest approach to the sun and in being the fastest spacecraft ever. The spacecraft came 26.55 million miles (42.7 million kilometers) to the sun and clocked speeds of 213,200 miles per hour.

The space probe is named for American solar astrophysicist Eugene Newman Parker, 91, who developed the 1958 theory of the continually flowing solar atmosphere, he called the solar wind.

The $1.5 billion probe is collecting scientific data via four instrument suites onboard. One of those instruments, the NRL’s Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR), is the only imaging instrument and contains two coronagraph telescopes incorporating active pixel CMOS detectors.

NASA expects the “imaging to revolutionize our understanding of the corona and expand our knowledge of the origin and evolution of the solar wind,” according to its mission statement.

The probe will undertake seven Venus gravity assist flybys around the Sun over a course of nearly seven years, each time shrinking the orbit.

“It is exciting to see the launch of this advanced instrumentation to better understand our sun,” John R. Tower, Technical Director, SRI International, said in a press statement. “We thank NRL for selecting us to supply this custom CMOS sensor and TowerJazz for their continued commitment to our aerospace product developments.”

The TowerJazz sensor comprises extremely low dark current for microscopy and terrestrial astronomy.

The first image revealed by NASA from the Parker Solar Probe was of Earth, taken some 27 million miles (43 million km) from our planet.

The view from Parker Solar Probe's WISPR instrument on Sept. 25, 2018, shows Earth, the bright sphere near the middle of the right-hand panel. The elongated mark toward the bottom of the panel is a lens reflection from the WISPR instrument. Credit: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

The view from Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR instrument on Sept. 25, 2018, shows Earth, the bright sphere near the middle of the right-hand panel. The elongated mark toward the bottom of the panel is a lens reflection from the WISPR instrument. Credit: NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe

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“On Sept. 25, 2018, Parker Solar Probe captured a view of Earth as it sped toward the first Venus gravity assist of the mission. Earth is the bright, round object visible in the right side of the image,” reads a NASA statement. “The image was captured by the WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe) instrument, which is the only imaging instrument on board Parker Solar Probe.”

The Israeli-engineered imaging sensor is also radiation resilient. That means the sensor won’t melt as it orbits into the sun’s atmosphere.

It also means, we, Earthlings, will get to see images of the structure of the sun’s corona.

“The fact that you need to wait to see the images is important. It gets you excited,” says SpaceIL’s Damari. “This is how science works. It’s not what we’re used to in the world of entertainment where everything happens fast. Science takes time. It’s something to look forward to.”

Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond.