​When, in his former life as a high-school teacher, Ben-Gurion University computational neuroscientist Dr. Oren Shriki would introduce the subject of brain science, he had a foolproof means of grabbing his students' attention. “I would show them an image of the starship Enterprise from the series Star Trek and read the opening monologue from each episode. The idea was to wow them with a description of the sheer vastness of the universe and how little of it we currently understand. Then," he concludes, “I'd surprise them by saying that we know even less about the human brain. That, I would say, is the real final frontier."

Prof. Oren Shriki with models of brains

Given how well space served his educational goals all those years, it seems only right that Shriki's newest research project returns the favor. And indeed, his experiment in longitudinal astronaut neuro-wellness monitoring during Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe's Rakia (“Heaven") mission to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year may eventually help to make long-term space travel possible. “Thanks to the novel, high-resolution EEG headset developed at the Israeli startup EEG-SENSE, we can collect data that will allow us to apply advanced quantitative analyses and characterize changes in brain dynamics that occur during prolonged stays in space," explains Shriki, who consulted for EEG-SENSE in its early stages. “We'll analyze ongoing brain activity as well as activity during task performance, and then follow daily changes before, during, and after the mission."

While conceding that Stibbe's mission is relatively short, Shriki primarily views it as an opportunity to demonstrate the feasibility of the experimental platform. Then, he says, he can use it to collect more data during longer missions at the ISS in the future. “Elon Musk is already talking about sending a manned mission to Mars, which we know would take around two years. This research will help us understand if the human brain is up for the ride, and even how we can maintain healthy brain activity on the way."

The addition of neuroscience and machine learning—Shriki uses AI algorithms to analyze big data on brain activity—to the space-research arena is a natural step for BGU, which takes what Vice President for Research and Development Prof. Dan Blumberg calls “a remarkably comprehensive approach to the field." Explaining that the University is especially adept at facilitating collaborations across disciplines, Blumberg, who is also the head of the Earth and Planetary Imaging Facility (EPIF), notes that unlike other universities in Israel, BGU has all the components—such as leading programs in mechanical and electric engineering, remote sensing, and computer science—necessary for the development of satellites and aerospace technology. The University also emphasizes collaboration with industry: Blumberg notes that the Israeli aerospace and defense company Elta Systems already has a branch in Beer-Sheva, with defense electronics companies Elbit and Rafael planning to join the city's hi-tech ecosystem soon. Finally, Blumberg says, BGU's space research combines the strengths of science, engineering, and education, both of BGU students and of the youth in the Negev, who will one day work to push the frontiers of space research back even farther than we imagine possible.

Prof. Dan Blumberg

“Space has an aura of romance about it, and as such it's a great discipline through which to encourage the study of other things, including some of the most pressing challenges here on Earth," says Blumberg, whose scientific career has included research into both realms: While studying under the planetary pioneer Ronald Greeley at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, Blumberg analyzed aeolian processes, or the mobilization and formation of sand dunes, on Earth, Mars, and Venus comparatively. To underscore his point, he mentions the famous first pictures of the Earth taken from the Moon, whose arresting images of the planet's brilliant colors in a vast sea of black space changed the way we thought about our world. Today, his remote sensing team at the EPIF uses those colors — and many more that are invisible to the human eye — to achieve precision agriculture, among other things. (“By analyzing soil patterns, monitoring weeds, and detecting the presence of minerals the eye can't see, remote sensing can help farmers improve their yields," Blumberg explains.)

The extraordinary accuracy of remote-sensing images is perhaps best demonstrated by the EPIF's research on sand dune dynamics, or the mobility of sand dunes on account of wind power, precipitation, and vegetation cover. EPIF senior research associate Dr. Shimrit Maman, whose research focuses on the application of satellite technologies to environmental challenges and climate change, explains that remote sensing technologies can map changes in both the height of sand dunes and their subsurface patterns down to the millimeter. By analyzing the climate factors that have shaped and reshaped these dunes over time, Maman and her group hope to predict climate patterns in the future. In particular, Maman has used remote sensing to map the Central Asian ergs, or large, flat areas of desert, whose ground inaccessibility makes traditional mapping methods almost impossible. Almost, but not completely: Maman is one of the few researchers—and the only female among them—to conduct field analysis in the ergs of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with the aim of validating the remote-sensing findings. “BGU is unique in that it emphasizes complementing remote sensing with geomorphological field studies," says Maman. “We not only collect data, but also verify it in-situ. This approach gives us a really fundamental understanding of environmental processes."

Dr. Shimrit Maman

In addition, Maman and her team are using remote sensing technologies to study the sand dunes on Mars and Venus, although, for the time being, at least, the field analysis part will have to wait.

Finally, Maman explains that the EPIF also uses remote sensing to guide emergency response after natural disasters, such as the 2011 tsunami in Sendai, Japan. By combining radar and optical images in a damage-assessment map, EPIF researchers can help rescue forces determine how best to access areas whose infrastructure has been damaged. And since 2017, many of these images come from BGU's own nanosatellite for Earth observation, BGUSAT, developed together with Israel Aerospace Industries and the Israel Space Agency. Designed to show that even nanosatellites can achieve the same enormous results as yesterday's mini-van size models, BGUSAT also offered BGU students a unique educational opportunity: the chance to construct it themselves. For Maman, who was selected as one of the UN's 35 mentors in the Space4Women network for encouraging women and girls around the world to engage in space research, the educational component of her work is as meaningful, and critical, as her own research.

“Space-related science can play a key role in areas such as climate change, communication, transportation, even health. The more students of both genders who are interested in and committed to space research, the better off we all are," says Maman, who also founded SheSpace, a first-of-its-kind educational project to encourage high-school girls to pursue STEM education even careers in space research, too. Shriki also welcomes the opportunity his research will provide to get back into the classroom: As part of his EEG experiment, he plans to share some of the data with junior-high and high-school students throughout Israel's South as part of an educational program in brain science.

“It's not lost on me that whereas once, I used a fictional television series about space to teach brain science, soon I'll be using real data from a space mission of which my research was a part," says Shriki. “I would call it a kind of coming full circle, but I'd prefer to think of it as just the beginning of knowledge — about the brain, space, and many things in between."​