Accord with ESA Provides Backdrop for Conference

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European Space Agency (ESA) Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, along with the executive director of the Paris-based International Astronautical Federation and national space coordinators from European Union (EU) member states generated an unusually large footprint over a traditionally U.S.-centric annual event here at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies.

Nearly 1,300 government, industry, military and academic representatives from around the world took part in the two-day international conference commemorating Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and members of NASA’s ill-fated STS-107 Columbia mission.

As in years past, NASA and the ministry that oversees the Israel Space Agency were co-partners in the sixth annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference held in Herzliya, Israel, Jan. 30-31. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver described the annual event as an important venue for cultivating future Israeli participation in the U.S. space program.

But it was the European agenda that dominated discussion here, given the prospects for cooperation following a Jan. 30 framework agreement concluded between ESA and the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology.

“Our relationship with Israel is not starting today, as many ESA missions are already benefiting from Israeli technology. But today we shall open a new page with the signature of this agreement that provides the legal framework for cooperative research and development for peaceful means of space exploration,” Dordain told reporters here.

Citing Israel’s ongoing bilateral space programs with France and Italy, and scientific projects funded through EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), Dordain said the new agreement allows ESA and Israeli officials to begin work on a roadmap for future collaboration. When asked about Israel’s ability to cover costs of ESA cooperation, Dordain replied, “Obviously some budget will be required, but we have not reached the stage for such discussions.”

Sources here said Israel is eyeing the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program as the first large cooperative project with ESA, although few here expect the requisite Israeli government funding for the foreseeable future. Backed by the EU and managed by ESA, GMES is a series of large Earth-observing satellites equipped with radar and optical sensors.

“We’re all looking at GMES as an opportunity for cooperation, but without long-term government funding, the chances are nil,” said Tal Inbar, head of space programs at the Fisher Institute and a lead organizer of Israel’s annual space conference. “Without real budget authority for the Israel Space Agency, they might as well take their newly inked agreement with ESA and put it in the archives to gather dust.”

In the scientific realm, however, Inbar said prospects for Israeli-European collaboration were brighter. He noted that on the sidelines of the conference, the Fisher Institute hosted a steering committee meeting of the European Commission’s space and security unit, in which national space coordinators from some 15 member states assessed projects slated for FP7 funds.

Additionally, Israeli Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz cited advanced discussions here with Philippe Willikens, chief executive of the International Astronautical Federation, to host a conference in Israel.