Space: Israel's final frontier

Opher Doron of Israel Aerospace Industries’ Space Division talks moon missions and nanosatellites with the ‘Magazine’ on the 30th anniversary of Israel’s first satellite launch.

SpaceIL's lander - SpaceIl is an Israeli nonprofit, established in 2011, that was competing in the Google Lunar X Prize to land a spacecraft on the moon. (photo credit: SPACEIL IAI)
SpaceIL's lander - SpaceIl is an Israeli nonprofit, established in 2011, that was competing in the Google Lunar X Prize to land a spacecraft on the moon.
(photo credit: SPACEIL IAI)
‘Space is exciting,” says Opher Doron, when describing the look on the faces of kids who visit Israel Aerospace Industries to learn about how Israel is pioneering in the great unknown. “It’s a big wow,” for them. “They are talking about Mars nowadays and exploration, comets, landings. So space is exciting. It is the ultimate technology. It brings together everything in tech – from physics, engineering and launchers and loaders, you name it and it’s there.”
Today Israel is aiming to be the fourth country to get to the moon. It is also developing nano-satellites – little satellites the size of a milk carton – and Israel is pioneering high-resolution photos from satellites designed specifically to aid environmental research. In an era when space programs in some Western countries seem to be ossifying, Israel is doing what it tends to do best: being innovative and self-sufficient.
Today IAI is celebrating 30 years in space. The origins of the space program begin in the 1980s when Menachem Begin was prime minister. The Israel Space Agency was created in January 1983 under the Science Ministry, which was itself a fledgling ministry. IAI built Israel’s first satellite, the Ofeq-1. The 157-kg. satellite was launched on a Shavit rocket at Palmahim, south of Tel Aviv. It was launched westward because of Israel’s hostile neighbors to the east and entered a low earth orbit, circling the earth every 90 minutes. Israel became the eighth country to put its own satellite into space.
“Thirty years is a long time for everything and a good time to look back and forward,” says Doron. Israel has achieved a lot since then. The space sector is booming, he says.
“We have launched a large number of satellites and we have some of the best satellites in the world up in space, providing amazing resolution and fantastic coverage of large areas.” These can provide sharp high-quality images and they are cost effective. In terms of cost and weight, Israel is a world leader, he says.
The satellites Israel has launched have outlived their expected life spans. Some were designed for four years and survived for 15 years. “So Israel can now look with great detail wherever it needs to look and that is an important part of national strategy. The program achieved not only the goals set out for it in the large picture but also surpassed expectations in quality and number.”
The Ofeq line of reconnaissance satellites that first entered service some 30 years ago is still providing Jerusalem with the best available intelligence. For instance, when the Ofeq-10 entered orbit in April 2014, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said that it was a testimony to the “impressive ability of the State of Israel to develop and lead on the technological front.” It would improve the State of Israel’s intelligence capabilities, he said, “and enable the defense establishment to better deal with threats that are near and far at any time of the day, in all types of weather.”
In September 2016, the Ofeq-11 became the latest of these reconnaissance satellites to enter orbit.
These satellites have had very important real- world implications. When Ofeq-7 blasted into the night sky from Palmahim in June 2007, Reuters noted that the “spy satellite would provide high-quality surveillance over enemies such as Syria and Iran, rivaling the capabilities of the United States.” Soon after its launch, according to the Sunday Times (London), the satellite was diverted from covering Iran to looking at Syria.
“High quality images of a northeastern area every 90 minutes” were soon coming back. It made it “easy for air force specialists to spot the facility.” The facility in question was the al-Kibar site, the nuclear reactor that the Syrian regime was developing. Based on North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor 1 the site was bombed on September 6, 2007, destroying Syria’s plans. On September 7, an Israeli satellite photographed the damaged site. The photos were published only 10 years later, in September 2017, but show clearly the importance of Israel building and launching its own satellites to defend against threats.
IAI’s space division and much of the cutting-edge technology that Israel is working on is housed in a complex in Yehud, not far from Ben-Gurion International Airport. To enter the warehouse where the satellites are housed, one must don a white smock, a head covering and sterile fabric to cover the shoes. Inside an air conditioned room are a variety of satellites, some of them mock-ups or models. Some of the little nano-satellites, which look like a toy a kid could play with, sit in a case. At the far end of the room, one sees a group of people huddling next to what looks like a lunar lander from the 1960s. And indeed, it is part of Israel’s SpaceIL program at IAI, which, if it reaches the moon, will make Israel the fourth country (after the US, China and Russia) to get there.
It is supposed to be launched at Cape Canaveral aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Weighing only 600 kilograms, it is not as large as the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, which weighed 4,000 kg. The SpaceIL mission began as part of the Google Lunar XPrize, which was announced in 2007. For a prize of $30 million, a privately funded team had to land a robot on the moon and have it travel 500 meters and transmit back images. But by January 2018, it became clear that no team had been able to launch a mission to the moon by the March 2018 deadline and the cash prize offer appeared to be ended.
But SpaceIL decided to keep moving forward. In a July press conference, Morris Kahn, president of the non-profit organization SpaceIL, said that after eight challenging years, “I am filled with pride that the first Israeli spacecraft, which is in its final construction and testing phases, will soon be making its way to the moon.” SpaceIL founders Yariv Bash, Kfir Damari and Yonatan Winetraub will hopefully fulfill their dream of reaching the moon. The project has grown far beyond the initial competition. According to IAI, it has “ignited the imagination of about 900,000 children nationwide, with the help of a broad network of volunteers.” It has also brought together a wide range of donors, from Kahn to Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Sammy Sagol, Lynn Schusterman and Steven Grand.
FOR DORON, who served in the navy in the 1980s when Israel first went to space, the history of Israel’s space program is made up of visionaries.
“It came from young visionaries who said we can do this; they may have sounded crazy, but they were right and the leadership picked it up. For our safety, we need to be able to look at what is going on over the fence; from that strategy they collected together the best around, those who specialized in military systems, to start learning space. Lo and behold, years later we were looking down and taking pictures and we had our own launcher. Very few countries do that.”
However, Israel can’t rest on its laurels; it must keep running forward.
Israel has put seven Amos communications satellites into space and earlier this month said it would seek to construct Amos-8. One of these satellites, Amos-6, was destroyed in a fire in 2016 in Florida.
“I am very happy that the government decided this was an important national strategic asset and decided to ensure that the next communication satellite is built in Israel. The next Amos will be an amazing satellite,” says Doron. Israel has invested heavily in bringing technology to Israel so that the satellite will have a “sophisticated payload to give users more than they have with Analog satellites. We hope that program will get under way in the next couple of months. It will be by far the most advanced ever built in Israel and one of the more advanced ones in the world.”
One of the hurdles Israel faces, besides being a small country, is that because satellites have generally been a security issue, civilian investment has lagged behind. Israel’s civilian space program has a tiny budget compared to others around the world.
“And I’m not talking about absolute budgets,” says Doron. “We’d love to have a $20 billion NASA budget, but even per capita budget, where NASA gets about $60 a year per capita and in the EU $10 to $20 per capita, Israel is doing $2 to $3 a year per capita.” That means Israel isn’t putting up a lot of research satellites, the way other countries are.
Things changed in August last year, when the Venus agricultural monitoring environmental research satellite was launched in cooperation with the French space agency.
“Venus is further proof of Israel’s immense technological capabilities,” said Technology and Science Minister Ofir Akunis. “We’re a science, technology and space superpower that the entire world seeks to collaborate with. Many countries will enjoy Venus’s findings in the very near future for the purposes of environmental, agricultural, water and food research.”
Doron hopes Israel will begin to invest more in these kinds of endeavors more in the future.
IN THE film Apollo 13, there is a scene where the men in the stricken service module heading for the moon realize that America wasn’t even tuning in to the mission in 1970. Space had already lost its allure. The moon seemed boring. The final US space shuttle retired in 2011. Space has seemed less interesting and inspiring. But Doron says that Israel’s space program and projects like SpaceIL are inspiring a new generation.
“I see it in the kids and I see it in myself – it’s exciting. Is it as exciting as 1969? Probably not, but it’s still a big wow, they are talking about it.” Nothing is more complicated than space and people from age five to 95 are excited. “Wow, we can do anything,” is the spirit among younger people. “The technology is neat. Let’s not all go be lawyers, let’s study engineering.”
When those graduating today with degrees that might lead them to Israel’s space program choose what to work on, they will have a series of projects at their fingertips. Beyond the Amos and Ofeq series, IAI is also working on nano-satellites. This would reduce the weight of the satellite to less than 100 kg. and beyond, down to even only several kilos.
“There are many interesting things that can be done when you put a large number of small satellites in earth observation or communication,” says Doron. “When you have a lot circling the earth, the frequency they will be able to see and communicate is suddenly much greater.” For instance, a normal orbit might mean the satellite passes once or twice a day, but when you have numerous small satellites as part of a kind of array, then you could be monitoring things constantly.
But even when they are small, it’s still expensive propelling them up there. The “operation costs money, so you want them to live a long time, and to make them cheaper – from hundreds of millions to tens of millions of dollars, including the launch costs and they should live a few years, so it’s a big step forward in design methodologies,” he says.
This whole system of building smaller satellites could be called the next frontier or “new space.” It’s “exciting,” says Doron. “We are not standing in place. We have had a fantastic run and we are sprinting on in new directions.”