Jerusalem, We Have a Problem: Why Israel's NASA Isn't Taking Off

The space agency represents Israel in the field, but suffers from budget issues and uses the help of external contractors. Is the Israeli NASA still soaring high despite these hurdles?

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An experiment of the space program on operations in Mars, Israel's Ramon Crater, February 2018.
An experiment of the space program on operations in Mars, Israel's Ramon Crater, February 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

Advanced research satellites, cooperation with foreign space agencies, support for Israeli research, educational activities. These are the flagship projects of the Israel Space Agency.

The agency, which is part of Startup Nation’s Science, Technology and Space Ministry, was founded 35 years ago. But today, is Israel’s NASA capable of meeting its goals? Does it receive the necessary support and funding? And is its main function – funneling money for research and development from the state budget – the optimal use of Israel’s research, technological and economic potential in space?

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Israeli technology makes the country a world leader in many areas linked to space science. Just the launching of a satellite on a rocket is an achievement only a dozen or so countries have mastered.

Israeli reconnaissance satellites are at the cutting edge of technology, and Israel is the world leader in satellite miniaturization. But many of these achievements are far from the public eye because they’re conducted as part of Israel’s military space program (mostly under the auspices of the  lsrael Defense Forces’ air and space branch).

Back in the early '80s, Israel realized that to exploit its defense knowledge and develop civilian space technology, it had to set up a civilian space agency as part of the Science Ministry. The Israel Space Agency, established in 1983, operated for years with a minuscule budget and represented Israel in the global civilian space community.

Heads of the SpaceIL project, which aims to land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon, IAI headquarters, July 2018. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“The idea of establishing the civilian program was to take advantage of the infrastructure of the large military space program,” says Avi Blasberger, the agency’s director general. “We’re based on a large amount of knowledge. The basic knowledge and infrastructure were created in another program.”

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Two IAI observation satellites, 2017.Credit: Arianespace

The model that guides the space program is the success of Israel’s cybersector. “Israel’s prestigious cyberindustry is based on infrastructure and human capital created in other places,” Blasberger says. “Now Israel makes up around 10 percent of the world cybermarket.”

The world space market is estimated at $350 billion annually and is expected to reach between $1 trillion and $3 trillion in 20 to 30 years. Blasberger says it's also one of the few industries that continue to grow even during economic crises. “The space market is a very difficult market,” he says. “It’s a market that finds it difficult to grow without government aid. Today the trend is changing.”

Only a few years ago there were only large companies, but this barrier has been breached; now there are a lot of small private-sector companies, which means great potential for Israel, Blasberger says.

In 2009, then-President Shimon Peres announced the establishment of a committee to craft recommendations on the space agency’s future. The panel, headed by Prof. Isaac Ben Israel who is now the agency’s chairman, recommended in 2010 to raise the agency’s annual budget from a few million shekels to 300 million shekels ($84 million).

As a result of the committee’s report, the budget was raised to tens of millions of shekels a year, and progress was made in implementing some of the recommendations such as promoting international cooperation. But the amount of government funding for civilian space research still lagged far behind that of many countries.

Annually per capita, the United States spends 26 times more on space science than Israel. This isn’t enough, Blasberger says: “We have about 25  to 30 percent of the budget we think is needed to achieve our goals.”

International cooperation

So what does the agency do with its limited budget? The flagship project today is the Venus satellite for environmental research. It was built and launched a year ago in cooperation with the French space agency CNES. Venus has two main goals: scientific and technological.

The first is agricultural and environmental research. It orbits the Earth 29 times every 48 hours and photographs 110 regions around the planet at 12 different wavelengths, some not visible to the human eye. The hope is for the research to promote “precision agriculture” in which farmers receive daily information with detailed recommendations of how much and where to irrigate to maximize yields.

The second goal is to identify water pollution early and treat it as soon as possible to limit the damage.

After two and a half years of orbiting the planet at an altitude of 700 kilometers (435 miles), Venus will begin its technological mission: to test its electric drive motor. Today, communications satellites use very heavy electric motors, but smaller satellites use chemical rocket propulsion. Venus has a new type of motor that uses ion thrusters (Hall-effect thrusters) in which the propellant is accelerated by an electric field.

To test the engine, the satellite will descend to a 400-kilometer orbit for six months; from here it will spend another year taking much higher-resolution photos. At this altitude, atmospheric friction will be much greater, providing a better test of the new engine.

Launch of the Venus satellite, August 2017.Credit: Arianespace

Another major project is the Shalom Mission, a joint Israeli-Italian initiative. The Shalom satellite is a next-generation observation platform, a kind of Venus on steroids. Shalom will be able to provide a full spectrum of wavelengths for photographs and discover an object’s unique “spectral fingerprint.”

For example, it will be able to identify a power plant's carbon footprint, and observe the pollution's concentration and where it reaches. Today, such equipment is installed only on planes.

Another major role of the Israel Space Agency is to enable Israeli scientists to take part in international projects. Also, in cooperation with NASA, the agency has aided in developing a garment to protect astronauts form radiation; it will be sent to the International Space Station next year for testing. The goal is for the vest to be used on the first manned mission to Mars in the next decade.

Another possible project in cooperation with NASA, still only in the early stages of discussion, is American involvement in the SpaceIL project to land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon.

Blasberger says his agency is also in contact with NASA about sending another Israeli astronaut into space; he says he’s sure it will happen in the next few years.

The agency also provided components for satellites such as computer chips developed by Israeli company Ramon Chips for a Japanese satellite launched in 2014 to study asteroids, and a European satellite launched in 2016 to study Mars – as well as miniature satellites used by NASA to study hurricanes. The company is now finishing up the development of the next generation of chips for use in future satellites.

Another extremely precise project in collaboration with the European Space Agency is an ultra-stable quartz oscillator designed by an Israeli company, AccuBeat, for the JUICE mission to study the atmosphere of Jupiter and three of its moons scheduled for 2022.

A job for the young

The Israel Space Agency helps finance other Israeli companies and developments, some in academia, such as the Technion’s Samson project to launch clusters of nanosatellites, or in private industry, such as SpacePharma, which provides services for launching scientific experiments to study the effects of microgravity.

The agency also plays a key role in education. “Space is a subject that fascinates people from a very young age,” Blasberger says, and the agency aims to create the future of the Israeli space community and channel young scientists into the field.

The agency, in cooperation with the Education Ministry, runs programs for young people, holds a Space Olympiad, a Space Week and competitions, while conducting after-school activities and teacher training. One such program has led to the launch of two satellites that were built with the help of young people, and this school year, seven schools are planning and building tiny satellites with artificial intelligence to test autonomous navigation systems for satellites.

The agency uses outside contractors in most of its endeavors, including in technology and education. The agency provides the funding and direction, but others carry out the work and implementation.

“We don’t have the resources to train and carry out [the projects]. We took a contractor who knows how to do it,” Blasberger says. “The idea is ours, the choice is ours, the budget is ours and the management is ours. I don’t think that if I keep instructors for satellite construction here I’ll do it better than those who’ve already done it.”

Blasberger says the agency defines the areas of research and finds the best scientists, and the industry will help him fulfill his goals. At NASA, the situation is the exact opposite. The American space agency has the capability to develop things itself, but it doesn’t do everything.

For example, it has privatized the launching of its spacecraft – one of its most important core functions. But because the private sector has no need for the heaviest rockets, NASA still has to take responsibility.

“The existing model works,” Blasberger says, adding that if things were different, maybe his agency would do things differently. “But if there are enough project managers who are good and experienced enough, it works.”

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