In mid-June, when Education Minister Yoav Gallant was threatening teachers with restraining orders (if they refused to work during the summer) and then-Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov warned against a second wave of the coronavirus in Israel, a spacecraft the size of a minivan was on a bold journey.
The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter was photographing the sun from a distance of 77 million kilometers (about 48 million miles) – approximately half the distance between the sun and Earth. The images – the closest ever taken of the sun – revealed a previously unknown phenomenon: The sun’s surface turns out to be covered with miniature solar flares, which the scientists quickly dubbed “campfires.” But no less impressive is the fact that the computer that operated the spacecraft’s camera was manufactured in the industrial zone – aka “startup village” – of Yokne’am, a town in Lower Galilee.
The company behind the computer is Ramon.Space, the great Israeli hope in the “New Space” revolution – that is, the privatization of the space sector. In the past few years, the semiconductor chips produced by the Israeli company have reached halfway to the sun, in the ESA’s Solar Orbiter; gone to the moon, in the first Israeli spacecraft (the SpaceIL Beresheet Lander, 2019); Mars, taken part in the ExoMars project of the European and Russian space agencies; and participated in the Hayabusa2 asteroid sample-return mission of the Japanese space agency. Next year, Ramon.Space chips will be launched to the Jupiter moons Ganymede, Callisto and Europa as part of the search for signs of life beneath the planet’s ice cover.
At the same time, Ramon.Space is also seeking to gain the upper hand in the burgeoning market of earth-orbiting satellites. “Wherever you look in the sky,” says the company’s co-founder, Ran Ginosar, “we are there.”
How many satellites equipped with your computers are currently in space?
Ginosar: “Approximately 200. We don’t know about most of them. If it’s not a scientific mission, like Solar Orbiter, we’re not told. We see it in our sales. The mechanism [in the Defense Ministry] that oversees Israel’s security exports protects me [from knowing about military applications of their technology]. Even in completely legitimate places like France, I was told, ‘If you don’t need to know, it’s better not to know.’ What I don’t need to know from the legal or commercial point of view, I don’t know.”
Two-hundred is a substantial amount, given that there are 5,000 active satellites in space altogether.
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“This is only the beginning. We want to be the new standard in the field.”
Prof. Ginosar, 68, comes from the computer sciences field, not space research. After graduating from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa with degrees in electrical engineering and in computer sciences, he completed his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1982 and subsequently returned to the Technion, this time to join the faculty.
There’s no shortage of Israeli startups in the realm of Earth-bound computers. When did you become interested in outer space?
“I build computer chips. That’s my field. And the truth is that I was involved in all kinds of startups over the years. But the Technion was bitten by the space bug. A few students there wanted to launch a microsatellite, and I built the chips for them. The TechSat, the students’ satellite, was launched in 2000 and was in operation for 12 years – an all-time record for a microsatellite. After that success, I was approached by the Defense Ministry’s Satellite Administration. They asked me to drop the startups and build chips for observation satellites.”
“Observation. Checking out what’s going on with your rivals is called espionage. But there is also early warning and deterrence.”
Isn’t that a career mistake – working for the Defense Ministry instead of the private market?
“Yes. But they said it was a Zionist need, so I agreed, just as I served in Golani [infantry brigade]. It wasn’t exactly a startup. I was asked, alongside my work in the Technion, to do what I knew how to do anyway: to take regular computers and turn them into space computers.”
Isn’t it cheaper to buy such things from the Americans? They know a thing or two about space.
“The Americans impose export restrictions on everything that is in some way security-related. And those are strategic restrictions. In other words, you don’t get it for free. You need to give something in return. You need to behave nicely and ask permission. You can use American products only for purposes that the Americans allow.
“We don’t want to be told what to do. It’s important to have ‘blue-and-white’ technology of this sort, for Israel to be independent in space. So I gathered a few students and colleagues of mine and we started to look into the subject. We saw what was done in other places and we realized that we could manufacture a better chip.”
We don’t want to be told what to do. It’s important to have ‘blue-and-white’ technology of this sort, for Israel to be independent in space.Ginsar
You already had the recipe.
“Yes, but there is an Israeli way. Because there is no money. If you’re poor, you have to go about it very carefully. We can’t build a special chip for every type of satellite. What’s needed is one chip that will be good for all the missions, a universal chip. We built a first chip and we checked [its functioning in the presence of intense radiation] it at the Nahal Sorek nuclear research center. During the initial testing it came out fine. The Defense Ministry told me, ‘Well done, now you’ll make us real computers.’ Well, the Technion is not the place for that – the Technion doesn’t sell products. We needed a company. So we founded Ramon.Space in 2003.”
At first you were known as Ramon Chips.
“Because at first we were paranoid. The ‘Ramon’ is clear: It was right after [Israeli astronaut] Ilan Ramon was killed. And the ‘Chips’ – because we manufacture chips, but we didn’t want people to know what we were really doing, namely, making chips for space. Afterward it turned out that the best way to protect yourself is for everyone to know exactly what you’re doing. You don’t want the Americans saying that you concealed information from them. That’s why we switched to Ramon.Space [in 2019].
“Every year we still fly to one of the big conferences in America and say, ‘Here, please, this is what we do, there’s none of your technology here, so we are not subject to your export laws.’ Very quickly we understood that the Israelis are not the only ones who wanted independence. The Europeans also don’t want to be subject to the Americans’ strategic umbrella. That’s why they prefer to buy from us.”
Don’t the Germans have their own computer manufacturers?
“In the field of chips that are durable in space, there are the American companies, and besides that there are three or four more players in the world. The European projects are government-sponsored, heavy and ponderous. They just tried to copy from the Americans. We thought that as long as we’re building a space chip anyway, we might as well build the best chip in the world.
“There are 5,000 people in Israel who know how to build chips better than all the Europeans combined. We have a magnificent chip industry, in part thanks to the Intel plant that was built here in 1974, and also because many of the Israelis who were working in Silicon Valley returned to Israel. So we established a private chip company, and we did it with the best human capital there is. We built a super-duper chip here, one that is a whole computer. It’s still considered the best and most durable chip of its kind. Thanks to it, we’ve gotten to places I’d never imagined.”
Hayabusa2, for example.
“For example. It’s true that the development of the first chip was intended for security applications, but not everyone sends up satellites to spy on their adversaries. There are also observation satellites that check whether crop irrigation is effective, or where sandstorms that start in the Sahara end up. And there are satellites that look outward, into space. There are also orbiters and probes and landers that are launched into remote space. And they all need chips. And before I knew it, I’m told that I’m on Hayabusa2.”
For readers who don’t follow space exploration news, the Japanese space agency’s Hayabusa2 (the word means “Peregrine falcon” in Japanese) is one of the most ambitious space projects of recent years. In 2018, four years after its launch, the spacecraft rendezvoused with the asteroid Ryugu at a distance of 280 million kilometers (174 million miles) from Earth, or about twice the distance between Earth and the sun. This particular asteroid was chosen for two reasons: It is liable to collide with our planet one day and to wipe out humanity; and it contains metals such as cobalt and nickel worth $82 billion (in the estimation of the website asterank.com), which human beings might want to mine one day.
On October 3, 2018, Hayabusa2 deployed a mobile surface scout, built by the German Aerospace Center and called MASCOT, to the surface of the asteroid. MASCOT photographed the ancient gravel and measured the refracted light spectrum, the radiation and the magnetic properties of the asteroid – all of it operated by a computer made by Ramon.Space.
At the same time, the Hayabusa2 mother ship bombarded the asteroid with a projectile, and collected the dust that rose from its surface. Hayabusa2 left Ryugu last November and this December will parachute to Earth a capsule containing the precious stardust. MASCOT and its Israeli-made processor will remain idle on the asteroid’s primeval surface .
Your computer will remain on Ryugu forever. As long as the solar system is here, and as long as the sun doesn’t turn into a red giant [star], your chip is out there.
“Unless someone volunteers to go there and bring it back. They’d be welcome. I have one on the moon, too, in Beresheet” – referring to the Israeli lander that crashed on the lunar surface in April 2019.
How do you feel about your place in space?
“Wonderful. It’s the farthest any Israeli product has reached. No other Israeli product has gone farther. And next year we’re going to outdo even that, with JUICE, the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy Moons Explorer. It will be flying with our computers to three moons of Jupiter in order to search for microorganisms beneath the surface. Listen, these scientific applications aren’t where the business lies – they buy a chip here, a chip there. The real money is in communications and observation satellites. But nothing is more exciting than pure science. Do you know what’s like to come to a school and tell the children that an Israeli space computer is on an asteroid? They’re thrilled, I’m thrilled, it’s an extraordinary feeling.”
What is the difference between a space computer and a regular computer – why not simply send a Lenovo laptop to the sun, or an Intel processor to an asteroid? Because computers in space, like people in space, are exposed to a lethal, two-headed monster: solar radiation and cosmic radiation.
Ginosar: “Solar radiation, or solar wind, is a stream of charged particles, which is serious trouble. Not because it comes from the sun, but because it gets stuck in two belts in Earth’s magnetic field, the Van Allen belts. The inner belt is packed with protons and the outer belt is packed with electrons. Both of them short-circuit the system [when it passes through them]. Do you remember how Beresheet stopped and did a reset? That was because it was hit by a proton from the Van Allen belt.”
So what do you do [if that happens]?
“Pray. We pass through quickly and carefully, and turn off the electricity where it’s not needed. A short can’t happen if we turn off the electricity. But that’s the lesser problem. Those are two belts that we have to get through. What’s truly lethal is cosmic radiation from interstellar space. It’s not just particles, it’s heavy ions, the heaviest. Uranium. Gold. And they move at tremendous speed, close to the speed of light. Where do they come from? From the most violent cosmic events: supernovas [the explosion of massive stars], collisions with neutron stars, mergers of black holes.
“Earth’s magnetic field protects us only partially from cosmic radiation. When a particle like that strikes an animal, it tears the DNA, so you have a mutation. A mutation can lead to evolution, but also to cancer. We are all exposed to these particles all the time, no matter where we hide. When an ion strikes an electronic product, it causes a power surge. The damage can be temporary, meaning a mistake in calculation, or permanent – the component can be burned.”
How often is a spacecraft likely to be hit by a particle like that in space?
“It could be measured in days or seconds. It’s a matter of luck, but in the end it reaches you. That’s why in many satellites resources are wasted on double systems. You can make systems redundant at the level of the individual transistor, at the level of the chip, at the level of the whole computer and at the level of the whole spacecraft. Some will say: ‘I will not send one satellite, I will send three and one will survive,’ but with our chip you don’t need to send three.”
It’s the farthest any Israeli product has reached. And next year we’re going to outdo even that, with JUICE, the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy Moons Explorer.Ginosar
What makes your chip durable?
“We built the silicon cells in the chip so that they would be immune to radiation damage, and instead of physical redundancy we added mechanisms of calculation redundancy: algorithms that bypass the errors caused by exposure to radiation. Of course, the larger and more sophisticated the computer, the more acute the problem becomes. In the past, there had to be a simple controller for the camera in an observation satellite and for the antenna in a communications satellite. But a late-generation communications satellite serves 10,000 iPhones, so it needs 10,000 times as much calculating power than a single iPhone has. The demand today is for supercomputers that will also be durable in space.”
To date, Ramon.Space has been financed primarily by the Defense Ministry, and by the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Israel Space Agency, which are both parts of the Science and Technology Ministry.
“Israel generally invests in startups through the Innovation Authority,” explains Avi Blasberger, the ISA’s director general. “The one difference is that investment in space companies go through the ISA. We are trying to promote this industry, and in the end the state benefits from the transactions involving these companies.”
At present, Ramon.Space, which has a staff of only 20, is trying to lift off with a new product – not just a space processor to operate simple systems such as steering and cameras, but a 64-core digital signal processor that can process information independently and make decisions in real time – namely, by using artificial intelligence or machine learning. By comparison, a new computer on Earth comes with a 2-core or 4-core processor. The aim: to charge ahead with the new multicore processor for contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for observation and communications satellites – and to gain control of the future and futuristic markets of New Space.
To that end, the Ramonauts launched a campaign to raise capital, in Israel and abroad, targeting private funds. In late 2019, Grove Ventures, whose managing partner is Israeli tech entrepreneur and investor Dov Moran, decided to invest in Ramon.Space – one of the VC fund’s few investments in an Israeli space startup.
“We decided to invest in a company that has proved itself,” Moran said, “which has developed and manufactured many chips that have taken part in dozens of space missions and is proud that all of them are continuing to operate.”
Moran also brought Ramon.Space its new CEO, Avi Shabtai. “Dov understands that space is the next big thing in tech,” Shabtai said.
People have been promising that space was the next big thing ever since I went to after-school science enrichment programs. For years we’ve been hearing about space tourism and asteroid mining and orbiting colonies, but we’re all still here. What has changed?
Shabtai: “Space tourism and asteroid mining are for the distant future. We are talking about building private space infrastructures to network Earth. Even governments are starting to use civilian infrastructures to utilize these services. That is an amazing change. Who would have believed that NASA would agree to launch its own astronauts in the spacecraft of a private company [the launch of a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a rocket of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company]?
“The new industry could create dramatic changes on Earth, which are hard even to predict. I will give you an example. We at Ramon.Space announced that we want to provide computing infrastructures in order to take cloud computing into space. And the fact is that just a few days ago, Amazon Web Services also appointed someone to set up a team for cloud computing in space.”
What is cloud computing in space?
“It refers to information networks based on in satellites. A satellite ‘talks’ to another satellite and they process data, whether it’s data collected in space or on Earth. Humanity is creating information on an unprecedented scale. Until now all the information was downloaded to Earth and processed here. That takes time and demands resources. We want to do all the processing in space. And for that, a powerful space processor is needed – a supercomputer.”
What is the advantage of this kind of flying server farm over a server farm in Finland?
“To begin with, every point on Earth can be covered, even if it doesn’t have an internet infrastructure. And I’m not just talking about some village in Africa. Drive an hour from Silicon Valley and you’ll get to communities where the people make a very good living, but they don’t have internet infrastructure. They can’t talk on Zoom the way you and I are doing now, and they can’t avail themselves of Netflix’s streaming services. And besides that, there is a great deal of information that is collected in space that does not necessarily have to be returned to Earth.
“Take commercial observation satellites. Someone is prepared to pay for an image of a specific place on Earth, but suddenly clouds appear. Today the client doesn’t know that the picture is covered with clouds; he waits for hours until he can download the image and only then does he see that there are clouds. But imagine a different situation. The photo is taken and sent to a data center located in space that processes it immediately and says: Find a different angle, send a different satellite or just wait an hour until the sky clears up.”
The director of NASA estimates that the space economy is already generating a turnover of $383 billion a year – more than the entire Israeli economy – and the U.S. treasury secretary estimates that this will grow to trillions by the end of the decade. But most people on Earth are not part of this game: It’s unlikely that our readers have ever bought a photograph from an observation satellite.
“Not true. Look how GPS changed our lives. A taxi driver doesn’t care if the image he gets comes from a cluster of satellites – he wants to navigate with two clicks without needing a map. The New Space revolution ensures that we will have the ability to receive additional, sophisticated services, without necessarily knowing that they come from space. The space economy makes use of space, but at the end of the day it’s $400 billion paid in Earth money. Who knows what apps will be developed when we have an infrastructure of cloud computing from space, artificial intelligence from space or internet from space?”
Don’t your high-tech friends raise an eyebrow every time you say “from space”?
“They did at first. But the embarrassment can be overcome with a few success stories. There are so many startups that are not credible, that are selling dreams. I can sit with a friend and tell him that our technology is in a spacecraft that reached the sun, in another one that is orbiting Mars and in a third one that landed on an asteroid. How many people can say that?”