Satellite Disaster Exposes Lack of Israeli Space Policy

The explosion occurs at a critical moment for the space industry, which is far from being independent, and requires some groundbreaking decisions.

SpaceX explosion destroying AMOS-6 satellite on September 1, 2016.
Screenshot of USLaunchReport

Israel takes pride in being one of the few nations on Earth capable of both producing satellites and launching them into space — in Israel's case, on Shavit rockets from its Palmahim missile test site, south of Tel Aviv.

Yet, as Thursday's Cape Canaveral explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket with the Israeli AMOS-6 satellite it was carrying shows, Israel's aerospace industry is far from being independent. It relies on the success of the global industry, which itself is facing technological and economic challenges, and a cloudy future as the technological and commercial centers of gravity move to the private sector.

Though the cause of Thursday's explosion during testing has not yet been determined, it is not a rare event. Satellites have been sent into space for nearly six decades, but the process remains far from secure.

In 2015 alone, there were five abortive launchings, out of 86. One of them was a rocket similar to the one that exploded on Thursday.

While the global aerospace industry is prepared to absorb frequent losses of rockets and satellites, the explosion of AMOS-6 occurred at a critical juncture for Israel's aerospace industry.

AMOS-6, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries for Spacecom, which operates the AMOS series of satellites, was supposed to replace the aging AMOS-2 and the more recent AMOS-5. The latter has been out of service since communications were lost with it last year, only four years after it was launched.

The vacuum created by Thursday's disaster raises a question about Spacecom's purchase by the Chinese Xinwei Technology Group.

The success of the new satellite was one of the conditions of the deal. Its fate may entail headaches for Spacecom's main clients — the leading Israeli telecommunications firms Bezeq and Yes.

The defense establishment funded the production of the successful Ofek photographic satellites, and launched most of them from Palmahim.

Aside from the United States, Russia and China, no other country has military communications satellites. Nations much larger and wealthier than Israel rely on purchasing time on civilian satellites for intelligence and military surveillance.

Until now, the synergy between Israel Aerospace Industries, which manufactured the satellites, and Spacecom — which ordered them, managed them and sold their services — has not been bad.  

But now it's not clear whether Spacecom can continue to supply continually growing commercial and defense satellite communications needs while its own economic future is in doubt, and there is as yet no order for an AMOS-7 to replace the defunct 5 and 6.

There are alternatives. Services may be purchased from other countries and it may be possible to launch the next satellite within two to three years, if a decision to do so is made and the money is available. For now, though, it's not clear who needs to make that decision.

Tal Inbar, head of the space research center at the Fisher Institute, said, "The large number of players in the Israeli space arena and their diverse interests makes it difficult to set clear national goals in space and raise the resources to carry them out."

In effect, nobody is in charge of this vital Israeli technology. The Science, Technology and Space Ministry lacks both the money and authority to take a leadership role.

The Communications Ministry, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is busy mainly with vacuous attempts to open the market and weaken communications companies regarded as troublesome.

A blessing may yet spring from this crisis. Various groups were not happy with the sale of Spacecom to the Chinese. Still, the continued development and prosperity of Israel Aerospace Industries requires the decision of a leader. But when the leader, Netanyahu, is communications minister and a friend of his, Shaul Elovitch, owns the firm in question (Bezeq), that decision-making process isn't easy.