The loss of Amos-6

A setback or an opportunity?

Amos-6 (photo credit: ISRAEL SPACE AGENCY)
(photo credit: ISRAEL SPACE AGENCY)
Israel’s remote sensing industry will remain in business indefinitely, due to the strategic need for spies in space, but the communications satellite (ComSat) sector is a different story.
Absent a new government policy and sufficient multiyear funding, the Amos-6 satellite that exploded earlier this month in Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard a Space-X launcher could very well be the last of the ComSats produced by state-owned IAI.
Unlike the Ofek and its Eros offspring, which weigh no more than 400 kilograms, are launched primarily from Israel and orbit Earth every 90 minutes, latest Amos satellites weigh in at 5.3 tons, are always deployed by foreign launchers, and remain in geostationary orbit at the Israeli government-procured slot of 4-degrees West longitude.
While Israel’s defense establishment and various sectors of the Israeli economy have come to rely on Amosprovided services, alternatives do exist. The government has never codified the need for a dedicated ComSat or declared the Amos-series of satellites as a national strategic asset.
Had that planned September 3 launch been successful, Tel Aviv-based Spacecom, owners and operators of the IAI-built series of Amos satellites, would most likely have consummated its planned sale to Xinwei Technology Group, a Chinese conglomerate, for $285 million in cash. Once Spacecom was in Chinese hands, the Israeli government would have had significantly reduced influence, not only on the services it receives from the transmitting spacecraft, but on the companies it selects to build follow-up satellites in the Amos line.
Like ImageSat International, the company created to vector additional demand for locally built imaging satellites, Spacecom is an IAI spinoff, an entity born from the desire to promote Israel’s ComSat sector.
IAI sold off its shares of Spacecom in 2010 for reasons that are still unclear to its CEO, Yossi Weiss. “I don’t know why we sold our shares. It must have been for a good reason,” he said.
Since then, the publicly traded Tel Aviv-based satellite operator has made clear that its first duty is to its shareholders. If IAI cannot prove competitive – as was the case with Amos-5, a satellite ultimately awarded to a Russian firm – Spacecom is not obliged to sustain this sector of Israel’s satellite industry.
Weiss says IAI is developing a small, electrically powered ComSat projected to weigh less than half and cost “tens of percents” less than comparable spacecraft on today’s market. But due to nonexistent quantities of scale, he says IAI will need $40 million to $50 million annually to remain globally competitive.
Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofer Akunis has pledged to pursue government action aimed at retaining Israel’s indigenous ComSat capabilities. And experts at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies are urging the government to declare a national need for a dedicated ComSat.
Only time will tell if the launch pad loss of Amos-6 is an irreversible strategic setback or an opportunity to revive and secure Israel’s ComSat sector.