Israel’s place in the space race

Israel is the smallest of a handful of states which have the technology to independently launch unmanned missions into space.

Deep space bright nebula (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Deep space bright nebula
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Israel is known globally as a high tech nation, producing some of the most up to date commercial utilities in a variety of fields. At the same time it is a leading weapons exporter, researching and constructing its own military capabilities, including a number of missile systems.
What is less well known is that these two characteristics have combined to make Israel the smallest member of a very special club of nations – the potential space travelling  states.
Today there are only two countries in the world which have the infrastructure to put astronauts into space: China and Russia. The United States, the first nation to put a man on the moon, lost its capability in 2011 though it has plans to regain the ability.
But there is a small club of nine additional states which have the technology to independently launch unmanned missions into space.
Currently Israel has fifteen civilian satellites orbiting the earth. Two-thirds are observation devices and the remainder are communications platforms. The Jewish State specializes in “light-weight high-performance satellites” carrying devices that can compete with American satellites capacity ion image resolution while weighing one tenth the weight, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israeli Space Agency at the Ministry of Science, told The Media Line.
As with much of Israel’s high tech enterprises, the civilian space industry benefits from the country’s military efforts. Both in terms of human capital - knowledge and expertise - and in infrastructure and investment, the Israeli Space Agency profits from military programs that came before it, Ben-Israel said. “Although they are two different entities, the Israeli space industry and the Ministry of Defense, we don’t have two separate production lines."
It is notable that the Israeli space rocket, the Shavit (Hebrew for comet), is built from technologies believed to be based on the Jericho II ballistic missile.
Although Israel is not part of efforts to conduct manned space operations it is keen to contribute to the exploration of the solar system.
“Human landings are too big for us. We have from time to time had human missions with the USA and we would like to have more in the future,” Ben-Israel said, adding that negotiations are taking place with NASA to facilitate this. The Curiosity Rover – currently trundling across the surface of Mars - was built with subsystems developed and constructed in Israel, the Mr. Ben-Israel added.
An idiosyncrasy of Israel’s indigenous launch program is that rockets taking off from Palmachim Airbase do so in a westwardly direction, traveling out over the Mediterranean Sea. This removes the danger of debris falling on populated areas and removes the necessity for the Shavit to travel over any of Israel’s neighbors. As the Earth spins on its access in an eastwardly direction this means that the rocket has to work harder to get into orbit, resulting in a 30% reduction in payload-lift capacity.
This will not be a problem for SpaceIL, Israel’s next venture into space, as the non-governmental program has secured a lift skywards from a launch site in the US.
SpaceIL is one of 15 organizations competing in the Google Lunar X Prize competition, a contest to place a vehicle on the Moon by 2017. SpaceIL became the first of the groups to secure a launch contract, with SpaceX, a commercial transport service which conducts logistics runs into orbit for NASA.
This means there is a very real possibility that the next mission to the Moon might be Israeli, albeit not state-owned.
The industry appears to be moving in the direction of private companies and non-profit organizations and away from the previously state-dominated model for space exploration, Deganit Paikowsky, a senior researcher at the Yuval Neeman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
This new direction is one in which Israel, the ‘Start-up Nation’ with an abundance of entrepreneurial spirit, could do well in, Paikowsky suggested.
In Israel the space industry and the startup sectors are closely connected, she explained, saying that Israel’s space capability is tied into the startup nation idea feed one another.
However, regarding, the next big prize, getting astronauts to Mars, commercialization of the efforts might not bring the next “giant leap” any nearer, Paikowsky cautioned. “I’m not sure if it will shorten the duration of time for that,” she concluded.
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