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Meet Dr. Ana Heller

Did you ever wonder what language stars speak? Dr. Ana Heller, an Astrophysicist from Israel, may just be able to tell you. From an early age, Dr. Heller has devoted herself to learning the “language of the stars”. After undergraduate studies in Geophysics and Astronomy at Universidad Nacional de La Plata (UNLP) in Argentina, Dr. Heller went on to pursue a Masters and PhD from Tel Aviv University in Israel, in Geophysics and Planetary Sciences and Astrophysics respectively.

It was during her studies at Tel Aviv University that Dr. Heller really zoomed on understanding exactly what the stars are trying to tell us. Dr. Heller’s research focused on the field of photometry of variable stars, spectroscopy of Quasars, and the environmental influences in the evolution of low surface brightness irregular galaxies. She was also part of the research team of the TAUVEX ultraviolet space telescope as well as a part of the aerospace industry team working on the EROS satellites.

Heller is a dreamer and a visionary, she introduced the concept YOUTH SPACE, investing in the next generation of space professionals, founding the Herzliya space laboratory for Youth in Israel, and promoting the first generation of Israel nanosatellites DUCHIFAT-1 and DUCHIFAT-2, and subsequently followed by DUCHIFAT-3. Duchifat-1 was the first Israel nanosatellite ever launched and was the second in the world designed by high-school students.

Today, Heller is fiercely promoting space technologies for the youth in Europe and in South America, leading a number of space projects and outreach efforts aligned with Israel’s strategies of international collaboration. She also serves as a member of the advisory committee of the Adriatic Aerospace Association, and is co-founder and member of the board in WiSpace, Israel space professionals’ women association, as well as a member of the Argentines Scientists in Israel board (red_CAI), where she serves as the activities coordinator of the Argentina-Israel collaboration for women in science and technology.

Let’s take a moment to learn a bit more about what inspires Dr. Heller and what she’s up to now.

What drives your passion for space?

When I was young, my passion for space was motivated by pure curiosity, I wanted to discover the wonder and the secrets of the universe. In order to do that, you need to learn how to listen to the stars, to learn their language; therefore, from my early years, I decided to study astrophysics.

The language of the stars is the light, and a telescope is the time machine that brings us their message from the past. However, the more that I questioned the universe, the more I discovered humankind and our necessity as earthlings to reach space.

We made the first jump when we started to launch artificial satellites and space telescopes of wavelengths hidden by the atmosphere. However, space telescopes are limited in size; consequently, I expect a new jump with our interplanetary colonization, the exploitation of extraterrestrial natural resources, and the installation of large telescopes first on the moon and later on Mars.

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

My parents were neither academics nor professionals, but they supported every one of my decisions. That included the choice of a career that was considered at that time to not be practical and rather only something for dreamers and philosophers.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges of spacecraft design programs for youth/high-school students such as DUCHIFAT?

Duchifat-1 was successfully launched on the 19th of June 2014. It was the first Israeli nanosatellite, and the first from Europe that was designed by young students. It was second in the world, just six months after the TJ3 sat launched under the NASA ELaNa mission, designed by nine universities and one high school, Thomas Jefferson high school for science and technology in Alexandria, Virginia.

After countless lessons learned and years of hard work, Duchifat-1 changed the perception of the space industry in Israel, proving that high school students are able to design and successfully put in orbit artificial satellites.

Before the launch of DUCHIFAT-1, the Israel space sector was controlled exclusively by the government; in Israel, the space industry is a matter of security and considered a strategic asset. The concept of NewSpace, that is, space for everybody, came much later. In addition, at that time people worked on space technologies only after academic degrees.

My conceptual framework was different: very young “engineers” (even when space missions were considered impossible tasks for them), and the Cubesat platform (considered toys by many). It took years of hard work to gather support for the idea. I started the project of Duchifat-1 in 2002, and it ultimately launched in 2014, a twelve-year time span. Today the situation is completely different in Israel, after DUCHIFAT 1, students launched Duchifa-2 in 5 years, and Duchifat-3 in 2 years. We can say that I paved the way for the young and NewSpace in Israel.

I’m currently working on similar projects in other countries, and I find that while the settings are different than in Israel, the main challenges are the same. First, convincing to invest in educational space projects for the critical age of young men and young women before their career selection, and second persuading people that the projects are achievable.

Tell us about your PhD research/ your involvement with the EROS satellites and in the TAUVEX ultraviolet space telescope.

I am an observational astrophysicist. My research focused on the structure and star formation regimes of low surface brightness dwarf irregular galaxies and active galactic nucleus (AGN) using techniques of photometry and spectroscopy at the School of Physics and Astronomy at Tel Aviv University (TAU). Also, I was part of the research team of the ultraviolet space telescope TAUVEX of TAU, and the Israeli commercial Earth observation EROS, designed and manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

Describe a typical day at work for you.

In a typical working day, young people surround me, and I'm teaching, correcting, or advising. In 2020, I spend a lot of time in front of my computer for study, planning, writing, and networking. I expect many travels around the world in 2021.

What are your favorite things about your job?

I feel very privileged to work in space technologies for the youth around the world for many reasons, among my favorites:

- I know that I arouse passions in my students and strongly influence their philosophy of life.

- I am creating an experienced space-industry workforce and training the future personnel of the space.

- I am contributing to diplomatic relations with my country through space collaboration in international educational projects.

- I am always learning new techniques, looking forward to the next jump to interplanetary colonization and the installation of big telescopes first on the moon and later on Mars.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career so far?

It was at that moment of the successful launch of Duchifat-1 that I felt that after so many years of research and work my efforts opened endless possibilities to the new generation.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up?

I am an optimist by nature, in the difficult times of my life; I always found the patience to wait for better times.

Who were your role models when you were growing up?

My role models for love and family were my parents. Community presence and personality, my mother. My dreams for space, without any doubt my father.

What advice can you give to women who are starting their careers in the space domain?

My advice is:

Set your eyes to the stars, you are strong, you are young, follow your dreams, do it with passion, do not be afraid.

With the following message:

“Let us make our mark in the world

Let us be a lift to new ideas

Let us explore ways to create

Let us imagine fantastic adventures”

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive? (Worldwide, or Israel in particular)

We need women, both in science and in technology!

We need women for a national growing economy and for building a better society of gender balance and equal opportunities.

We are wasting a strong potential specialized working force. While 60% of general workers in Israel are women, less than 30% are in high technology, and less than half of that in leadership positions.

Space is a natural environment for women, we are very curious, we like mysteries, we are romantic, and when Earth’s resources are exhausted, to stay alive, we will need to go to space for interplanetary colonization; we the women, will then play a fundamental role because we are smaller and lighter, we will better accommodate in spaceships.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

I would say, “I am very proud of you”

Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

Not a single, not even one different!

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