The first Israeli satellite for environmental research was launched early Wednesday morning from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The satellite is a joint effort by the Israel Space Agency, under the aegis of the Science and Technology Ministry, and the French Space Agency (CNES) and was built in Israel by Israel Aerospace Industries.
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It is considered the smallest satellite of its kind in the world, and is built to survey and monitor large areas to study soil, vegetation, forests, agriculture, water and air quality and other aspects of the environment.
The satellite, which weighs only 265 kilograms and was launched on a Vega platform, was dubbed Venus, an acrostic that stands for Vegetation and Environment monitoring on a New (µ) Micro-Satellite. It will have taken one hour, 37 minutes and 18 seconds to reach orbit, and two days to reach sun-synchronized orbit at an altitude of 720 kilometers. The first images Venus captures, which will show Israel, will be received in a week after launching. The satellite is meant to remain in operation for four and a half years, after which it will be diverted to a lower orbit.
Environmental research satellites have gained importance in recent years given the problems the planet faces in population overcrowding, decreasing areas for agriculture, pollution and natural disasters, and within four years some 300 such satellites are expected to be in orbit.
Venus will orbit the earth 29 times in 48 hours. It will produce dozens of photographs every day, each one covering 730 square kilometers. The fact that Venus will be able to take pictures of the same areas once every two days will enable it to monitor many environments, from the atmosphere to the depths of seas.
Every photo is created by 12 different sensors, each of which photographs on different wave lengths, which means each picture is composed of 12 different layers of data. Because of the large number of colors its camera can capture, which are beyond the range of the human eye, the photos will be able to show details that cannot be seen on earth with an ordinary camera. For example, the photos will reveal when vegetation lacks water, the presence of pests, salt depressions, leaking irrigation systems, water pollution in reservoirs, forest fires and post-fire scarring, among other things.
The data provided by Venus is aimed at policy makers deciding where and what to grow, and the information will be available both to agricultural planners and businesses.
When Venus passes over Israel, it will capture three geographical strips – in the Galilee; the coastal plain, including the strip of Mediterranean Sea along the coast; and the Negev. It will take in most of Israel’s national parks and nature reserves, forests and ecological stations. The pictures will be available to university and government researchers and government agencies.
The data collected from the Israeli satellite will be broadcast to a station in northern Sweden and from there for preliminary processing by the French space agency. The photos of Israel will reach the research center, on the campus of Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, headed by Prof. Arnon Karnieli. The center is the operational arm of the Ministry of Science and Technology.
The Israel Space Agency has so far invested about 5 million shekels ($1.4 million) in research projects based on the data to be gathered by the satellite. Meanwhile, Venus also has a technological task: to prove the advantages of a plasma-based electrical propulsion system developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Use of this system saves fuel and weight of the satellite so it can carry more research equipment.