Over the last two decades Israel has become one of the world's top 10 powers in space research, but by last year officials were growing concerned that high development and production costs would undermine the industry, and detract from its ability to compete for business in foreign space programs.
The non-military market potential for space applications is pegged at hundreds of billions of dollars a year, with the satellite market alone worth as much as $280 billion. So after years of investing mainly in developing satellites for the defense establishment, the government finally approved a three-year, NIS 180 million budget for the civilian Israel Space Agency in 2012. The concern was not just for small or mid-size industries; the space division at Israel Aerospace Industries was also facing an abyss. Only a shot in the arm in the form of a government tender for the Amos 6 satellite, along with a contract to build an Italian satellite, saved it from closure.
The approved budget fell far short of the five-year budget requested by the space agency, but it has enabled launching of the civilian program. Support for the budget was led by space agency chairman Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael and by Menachem Greenblum, director-general of the Ministry of Science and Technology. After a sluggish start in 2012, the program should pick up this year. The agency has just signed its first research and development contracts with a host of smaller companies and negotiations are being conducted with giants like Rafael, IAI and Elbit.
"We intend to set up a center for miniature satellites together with the Technion," says Menachem Kidron, director of the Israel Space Administration. "This will support the development and launching of three mini-satellites [weighing less than 10 kilograms] that will fly together while communicating with each other."
Looking for cheaper solutions
This program involves Rafael, Elbit, IAI and Elisra. Kidron reached the space agency by way of Rafael, where he headed a division devoted to space projects. "We developed the notion of mini-satellite groups at Rafael, looking for cheaper solutions. With between four and 10 mini-satellites you can view an area every hour instead of once a day, as with larger satellites. We are aiming at launching the smaller versions from aircraft," he adds.
Kidron says the agency will take advantage of Israel's capabilities in miniaturization, one of its global assets. "One issue is whether to go micro or nano. On the nano scale you get limited life-span and lower performance capabilities."
Space industries around the world aren't waiting for Israel, and the local space agency closely follows developments elsewhere. For example, when chemical propulsion of satellites is developed and adopted elsewhere, this will be used locally as well. "We won't get into areas that are totally new for us, but will focus on our strengths, such as miniaturization of communication and information-gathering satellites. We are open to testing new ideas. Others have realized the advantages of small size, and we have to work to maintain our edge," says Kidron.
The annual Ilan Ramon space conference will be held in Herzliya on January 28-29, 10 years after the Columbia disaster. The agency hopes to utilize visits by heads of foreign space agencies to enhance collaboration, the aim being to benefit local space industries. Of the agency's budget of NIS 91.8 million, 51% is earmarked for international collaboration and 27% for local R&D. The conference will be attended by the head of NASA, as well as the heads of space agencies in Europe, France, Brazil and Italy. Deputy heads of agencies from Canada and Russia, as well as a senior representative from China, will also be here. Companies attending include SPACEX, Virgin Atlantic, EMMERPLUS and Yuzhnoi.
The agency hopes to use the opportunity to sign agreements with other space agencies. "We plan to incorporate Israel into the European GPS plan, launching up to 30 satellites," says Kidron. "The agency wants to increase involvement in supportive services such as data analysis and ground stations. We will organize meetings between our industries and academicians and foreign agencies, in order to collaborate in groundbreaking technologies, as well as in satellites," said Kidron.
"We have already identified areas of common interest with the European and French agencies," he continued. "These include areas such as electric propulsion, an area Rafael is involved in, as well as micro-satellites. We'd also like to develop heavier communications satellites, which interests many investors, creating opportunities for us." Ongoing collaboration with the French and Italian space agencies involves satellites, including one with a camera for identifying mineral ore and pollution.
To build a superchip
With the assistance of the chief scientist at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labor, small grants are already being given to small and mid-size companies doing space research. A new fund will finance up to 85% of their R&D. Components for space need to operate under extreme conditions, making their development costly and investors wary. The new fund will support these endeavors. "We've identified specific needs such as computer chips that will withstand cosmic radiation and extreme temperatures that are usually destructive for these components," said Kidron.
Agreements have already been signed with several companies for development of a processor and components for communications satellites that will speed up communication with ground stations tenfold. Another company will improve GPS performance. These projects are receiving grants totaling NIS 11 million.
Calls for new projects will be issued this spring, focusing on communications satellites. IAI intends to apply for grants. Today it is limited by requiring several components from its competitors, but the space agency wants to help make it more competitive. The agency is also fostering collaboration between NASA and the Weizmann Institute, IAI and El-Op.
"This project aims at launching a satellite to explore the universe by examining supernova explosions in deep space. Capturing data from these will tell us more about the creation of the universe," says Kidron. "These satellites will carry several telescopes. When one of them detects a supernova, it will direct the rest to that spot."
In the planning stages are collaborations with the space agencies of Canada, Europe and Brazil. The coming year will see debates on the agency's budget for the next two years. The intention is to become one of the five leaders in satellite development, as well as in maintaining ground stations. "We have several satellites planned for launching in 2014-2015. We'd like to increase our annual sales from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars," adds Kidron.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now