Israel in space

The Israeli space program is held back by geography – but it doesn’t have to be.

This Week in History: Russia took the world by surprise when it launched the first man-made satellite into space (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Week in History: Russia took the world by surprise when it launched the first man-made satellite into space
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Israel is – by far – the smallest country to launch its own satellites; the Israel Space Agency is an extremely impressive organization. But it’s held back by geography.
In 1728, Newton published a thought experiment: a level cannon fires a cannonball. No matter how fast the cannonball is going, gravity pulls it toward the earth at 9.8 meters per second squared. If the cannonball is traveling very fast, before gravity has time to drag it to the ground, the ground recedes – because the earth is a sphere. If you shoot the cannonball very, very fast, gravity will never manage to pull it to the ground before the ground has moved out of the way. The cannonball will circle the earth and hit you in the back of the head. That’s how satellites orbit.
To orbit the earth, an object has to be traveling about 28,000 kilometers an hour. A tremendous amount of energy is required to get something going that fast. That’s the reason tiny satellites are launched by gigantic rockets. Because the earth’s surface is farthest away from its axis of rotation at the equator, the equator is where the earth’s surface moves fastest – about 1,600 kph. Rockets are launched as close to the equator as possible, to get a speed boost from the Earth’s rotation. That’s why the US launches from Florida, Russia from Kazakhstan, and Europe from the north of South America.
Israel launches from Palmachim Airbase, on the coast near Rishon Lezion. Palmachim is 31 degrees north, which gives it a speed penalty of about 240 kph. Still, 1,300 kph is a good boost – only slightly less than you’d get at Cape Kennedy. Unfortunately, however, you only get a speed boost if you launch east, the direction in which the Earth rotates. Every country in the world launches its rockets east – except Israel.
BEING A good neighbor, Israel won’t launch over Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, etc. So it launches west, over the Mediterranean. Which means instead of an 1,300 kph bonus, Israel is hit with a 2,700 kph penalty. Almost a tenth of orbital speed. This is, to say the least, a serious imposition.
I don’t work at the ISA and I can’t give details of the Shavit orbital rocket’s payload potential – I can tell you, though, that launching west means rockets have to be considerably bigger and satellites considerably smaller. But Israel has no choice. And it can’t rely on another country to launch its satellites, any more than it could rely on another country to guard its borders or police its streets. Those satellites are vitally important to Israel’s security. But happily, there is something to be done.
Israel has a close, friendly relationship with Kenya. Kenya lies on the equator, and on the Indian Ocean. Kenya has convenient sea access to Israel via Eilat. It’s easier to get things from Israel to Kenya than, say, from Moscow to Russia’s Kazakh launch center at Baikonur. Or from Western Europe to the French Guiana Space Center. Or from about 45 of the United States to Florida.
Israel has built things – constructed things – in Kenya before. Israel ought to build a new, extraterritorial launch complex on Kenya’s sparsely populated north-east coast, less than two degrees from the equator.
I imagine a Kenyan land purchase could be negotiated.
Israel could launch larger satellites more cheaply, both its own and everyone else’s, taking business from Baikonur and French Guiana, and the mobile sea-launch platforms that are starting to crop up. (Someone else will have to work out how quickly it can pay for itself.) But there’s another, much more important angle to this. A Kenyan launch center would mean Israel’s space program evolving as it ought to – into a manned space program. Both the Soviet Union and the United State went from first orbital launch to first manned mission in just over three years.
Israel’s first orbital launch was in 1988. Sure, Israel hasn’t got super-power money – but it has an excess of super-power science. (And with Iran having made its first orbital launch in 2009, maybe the Saudis will want to invest.) Start working on a Kenyan contract this summer, and Israel could put a man in orbit inside of a decade.
Write your MK.
The author is a columnist for the American National Review; he writes frequently about the science and technology of space exploration.