Watchdog Looking Into Israel's Satellite Program

Based on preliminary findings, the state comptroller believes there are serious long-term planning gaps in the development of satellites in Israel, even before the SpaceX explosion.

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SpaceX explosion destroying AMOS-6 satellite on September 1, 2016.
SpaceX explosion destroying AMOS-6 satellite on September 1, 2016.Credit: Screenshot of USLaunchReport
Amos Harel
Ido Efrati

The State Comptroller’s Office had begun investigating Israel’s satellite communications program a few months ago, even before Thursday’s explosion in Florida that destroyed the AMOS-6 satellite. Based on preliminary findings, the comptroller believes there are serious long-term planning gaps in the development of such satellites in Israel.

AMOS-6 blew up on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during a test firing of the Falcon 9 rocket, two days before the planned launch of the Israeli satellite. The satellite’s loss is estimated at $200 million.

The rocket was owned by SpaceX, which said Friday it is scouring computer and video data for clues about what caused the explosion.

Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis called in the heads of Israel’s space industry for an emergency meeting on Friday.

The destruction of the satellite dealt a major blow to Israel’s space plans. AMOS-6, built by Israel Aerospace Industries and operated by Israeli company Spacecom (in partnership with France’s Eutelsat Communications), was set to provide services to Israeli telecom networks and to be part of Facebook’s platform, to expand internet access to remote areas. It was meant to be operational for the next 16 years.

The state comptroller’s investigation into Israel’s satellite communications is being led by its security division, under Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Beinhorn. Although most of the satellite program’s goals are civilian, many of the satellite projects are in the hands of Israel Aerospace Industries, which is considered a defense company and therefore scrutinized by the security division of the State Comptroller’s Office.

The explosion of AMOS-6 illustrates the gaps in Israel’s space policy, which does not include long-term planning for the development of additional satellites. At this point, resources have not been earmarked, and development has not begun on the next satellite in the series. The unexpected loss of AMOS-6 could now set back Israeli plans for a long time.

The comptroller’s investigation will examine, among other things, gaps in resources, infrastructure and technological personnel in the manufacture of the satellites.

The comptroller’s security division has already held meetings with Israel Aerospace Industries and companies associated with the satellite program.

One aspect set to come under scrutiny involves the National Security Council and the extent to which it was involved in drawing up a long-term plan for satellite development, in light of the technological, economic and security-related aspects of the program for the state.

The report into the satellite program is expected to be included in State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s 2017 report.

Following Thursday’s explosion, the Israel Space Agency — which answers to Akunis’ ministry — said it would “continue to support space companies in Israel, with the goal of maintaining them at the forefront of technology and preserving Israel’s critical independence, particularly in the area of satellite communication.”

In the Knesset, meanwhile, the chairman of a Secret Services subcommittee announced that the panel would be convened to discuss the implications of Thursday’s explosion. This will be the panel’s second meeting in recent weeks on Israel’s space program.

The explosion “places the Israeli space industry in an even more serious position than what we said a few weeks ago,” said MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), who chairs the panel. He noted that the matter was critical and that “the necessary national resources” had to be committed to it.

Thursday’s explosion occurred during a prelaunch test, eight minutes before the engines on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket were supposed to briefly fire. The rocket was being fueled when a huge fireball erupted.

On Friday, SpaceX said it has begun reviewing 3,000 channels of computer and video data, covering a time period of just 35 to 55 milliseconds. The trouble appears to have originated somewhere near the liquid oxygen tank in the upper stage.

SpaceX said it is still unclear how badly the launch pad was damaged. However, the company said it has two other pads, one at the neighboring Kennedy Space Center and another in California. SpaceX said these two pads can support the company’s upcoming launches, until the damaged complex can be fixed.

The Kennedy pad should be ready to handle Falcon launches as early as November, according to SpaceX. That’s the site where the company plans to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in another year or so — a schedule now in jeopardy.

Upgrades at the SpaceX pad at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base are close to completion.

Both locations will be able to accommodate Falcon 9 rockets and the newer, bigger Falcon Heavy rockets. The company said it has about 70 launches lined up, worth more than $10 billion. NASA is a major customer, relying on SpaceX to send supplies to the space station and return science experiments. The space agency is also looking for SpaceX and Boeing to begin crew transport from Cape Canaveral, in order to reduce its reliance on Russian rockets.

“Our number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions,” SpaceX said.

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