Scientists have come a long way in the past decade in their understanding of wind-blown formations on Mars, and Israelis have played their part. Geomorphologists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba have been collaborating with NASA scientists in using the Negev and other deserts as analogs to understand windblown formations and how they affect the landscape, BGU's Prof. Dan G. Blumberg told The Jerusalem Post Sunday. NASA has sent two astronauts and one of its chief science officers to Israel this week to take part in a series of consultations and lectures. The visit is part of a series of events marking the fourth anniversary of the day the Columbia space shuttle broke up in flames after reentering the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members, including IAF Col. Ilan Ramon. One of the visitors, Benjamin Neumann, director of NASA's Innovative Technology Transfer Partnerships Division, will speak at BGU on Tuesday about the role of technology and robotic missions in the exploration of space. He will deliver the talk as a guest of the Earth and Planetary Image Facility. The NASA delegation will also take part in the second annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference, at the Israel Air Force Center's Fisher Brothers Institute in Herzliya on Wednesday. NASA has a network of 17 planetary imagery facilities which look out into space. Five of them are outside of the US, including one located at BGU's geography department. The facility is not funded by NASA, but there is a full exchange of data from planetary missions and field analogs. NASA is interested in knowing what Israeli researchers can learn about conditions on Mars, for instance, by studying the Negev desert. The scientists at the Israeli facility receive data from remote sensing probes and provide NASA with scientific expertise, data from field studies and joint analysis of planetary data from research projects. The main goal of the facility is to improve the understanding of natural and man-made environments using remote sensing while generating new avenues of research and harvesting scientific benefits from existing space missions and satellites. Blumberg, the director of the Earth and Planetary Imagery Facility and chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Development at Ben-Gurion University, says his facility has received data from several NASA Mars probes. He added that India is launching a mission to Mars next year. The South African-born Blumberg has lived in Israel since 1969, except for a six-year stint at a NASA facility at Arizona State University, where he worked on data from the Magellan mission to Venus, radar data from the space shuttle program and several future missions. Separately, BGU is establishing a new center, named after Israel's first astronaut, to improve scholastic achievement in physics and astronomy in the South, it was announced Monday. The Ilan Ramon Physics Center for Youth will offer applied studies in physics to all high school pupils in the South matriculating in physics. The new center - to include advanced computer terminals, a planetarium and a roof-top observatory - is the culmination of a joint effort by the university, the Sacta-Rashi Foundation and the Ministry of Education. It will be the focus point of the Madarom (Science in the South) project. Created nine years ago to enhance science and technology studies in the Negev, the program brings high school students to the university to study physics throughout the academic year. The Ilan Ramon Center will encourage pupils to carry out individual projects in physics, and will identify gifted pupils and help them to pursue advanced studies using the sophisticated laboratories at the center. The center will be housed in the Sacta-Rashi Building for Physics, and will also encourage students to participate in international physics competitions.