TAU engineers launching first Israeli nanosatellite for communicating from space

This is the first optical ground station in Israel and one of very few worldwide that can lock onto, track and collect data from a nanosatellite.

 The satellite team (Clockwise): Orly Blumberg, Prof. Ofer Amrani, Prof. Meir Ariel, Dr. Dolev Bashi & Idan Finkelstein (photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
The satellite team (Clockwise): Orly Blumberg, Prof. Ofer Amrani, Prof. Meir Ariel, Dr. Dolev Bashi & Idan Finkelstein
(photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

A nanosatellite that was launched into space by a Tel Aviv University team of engineers on Tuesday will pave the way toward quantum communication, a field of applied quantum physics closely related to quantum information processing and transferring data from place to place.

Its most interesting application is protecting information channels against eavesdropping by means of quantum cryptography. This is the first optical ground station in Israel, and one of very few worldwide that can lock onto, track and collect data from a nanosatellite.

“To implement long-distance quantum communication over hundreds of kilometers or more, we need to go into space. TAU-SAT3 is designed to pave the way toward demonstrating quantum communication via a quantum nanosatellite, to be built in the future at TAU.”

Prof. Meir Ariel

This satellite, which comes after the development of two others in less than two years by TAU, represents a “scientific breakthrough, paving the way toward demonstration of optical and quantum communication from space via nanosatellites,” according to the researchers at the Center for Nanosatellites at TAU’s Fleischman Faculty of Engineering.

TAU-SAT3 was launched by SpaceX’s launch vehicle Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

“TAU leads Israel’s effort to create satellite communication channels based on optical and quantum technologies,” according to the researchers, led by the center’s Prof. Meir Ariel. “To implement long-distance quantum communication over hundreds of kilometers or more, we need to go into space. TAU-SAT3 is designed to pave the way toward demonstrating quantum communication via a quantum nanosatellite, to be built in the future at TAU.”

The university’s first two nanosatellites were designed to measure cosmic radiation around the Earth and test various means of protecting the electronic systems installed on satellites from this radiation, he said. “To this end, the nanosatellites carried special payloads built in collaboration with various scientific institutions, including the SOREQ Nuclear Research Center.

“The third satellite, TAU-SAT3, was the first to be fully designed, developed and built at TAU,” Ariel said.

“The Faculty of Engineering is proud of the TAUSAT3 nanosatellite’s successful launching. The launch is a result of research and development executed by the Nanosatellites Center in collaboration with the QuanTAU Center."

Faculty dean Prof. Noam Eliaz

Faculty dean Prof. Noam Eliaz said that “The Faculty of Engineering is proud of the TAUSAT3 nanosatellite’s successful launching. The launch is a result of research and development executed by the Nanosatellites Center in collaboration with the QuanTAU Center.

“This nanosatellite forges a number of milestones on our way to achieve quantum communication from space by means of a quantum nanosatellite, which will be built at TAU in the future,” he said.

“Recently, we were the sole winners of a tender by Israel’s Innovation, Science and Technology Ministry to build and launch a fleet of satellites while making the field of ‘New Space’ and building nanosatellites accessible to students in the periphery. As of today, our faculty is the leader in this field in Israel and is a focal point for students, schoolchildren, research centers and industry in this field.”

What is the TAU-SAT3?

 TAU-SAT3  (credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY) TAU-SAT3 (credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

Launched to an altitude of 550 km., TAU-SAT3 is expected to orbit the Earth for about five years and carry out several scientific tasks. For the first time, it carries on board batteries made by the Israeli company Epsilor that will provide it with energy for its entire life in orbit. Its main mission will be to communicate with the new optical ground station set up on the roof of the Shenkar Physics Building on the TAU campus.

This is the first optical ground station in Israel, and one of very few worldwide, that can lock onto, track and collect data from a nanosatellite which – when viewed from Earth – is smaller than a single pixel. According to the researchers, this means that it will be technologically possible in the future to build and launch nanosatellites for optical communication at a much lower cost than large satellites.

The satellite will also conduct experiments in satellite communication at very high bit rates and in scenarios where satellite communication channels have been disrupted.

“TAU-SAT3 is a 20-cm. nanosatellite carrying an optical device that is only a few centimeters long,” Ariel said. “When the satellite passes over Israel, the device will emit light at various wavelengths, and the telescope of the optical ground station will identify the tiny flash, lock onto it and track it. The nanosatellite will simultaneously send both optical and radio signals back to Earth.

“However, when the optical device turns toward the optical ground station, the antenna will face in a different direction,” he said. “As a result, a significant portion of the data might be lost. The novelty in this project is the ability of the communication systems installed in both the nanosatellite and the ground station to reconstruct the lost data in real time using smart signal processing algorithms developed at TAU.”

PROF. YARON OZ, head of TAU’s Center for Quantum Science and Technology and a former TAU rector, said that “the principles of quantum mechanics enable an unconditionally secure encryption method. Whenever a hostile entity tries to intercept a transmitted message, the message immediately dissipates. Moreover, the interception attempt is detected – unlike current encryption methods, in which interceptions remain undetectable.

“Consequently, eavesdropping-proof quantum communication is today at the forefront of scientific research,” he said. “Governments and giant organizations around the world are involved in a race for quantum encryption capabilities – especially since quantum computers are expected to crack today’s encryption algorithms. It’s an enormous effort – in terms of science, technology and budgets.

“Beyond the encryption of security data, once current encryption methods are cracked by quantum computing, all data will be exposed – including personal medical and financial records, email and WhatsApp messages. This makes quantum encryption highly relevant to protecting everyone’s privacy,” he said.

“Quantum communication is very sensitive to the medium through which it is transmitted, such as optical fibers or the atmosphere. We hope that TAU-SAT3 will for the first time enable communication between an optical ground station and a satellite, taking us a significant step forward with regard to demonstrating reliable quantum communication.”