In the context of the recent Ilan Ramon International Space Conference, held last January for the tenth time by the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, the Israel Space Agency and the Ministry of Science, Technology & Space, a unique workshop was conducted on the subject of small satellites – normally known as nanosatellites. The field of small satellites (also known as miniature satellites or microsatellites) has been gaining momentum over the last few years, and numerous satellites have been built and launched into space by states, research institutes and even by young students (in this context we should mention Duchifat-1, a small satellite built at the science center in Hertzliya with the active participation of high-school students, and launched into space in April 2014).
Most small satellites are built according to the design of CubeSat satellites, to a size that is a multiplication of a cube whose face is 10 cm long. For example, a basic size satellite (known as “1U”) is a 10x10x10 cm cube. A satellite twice that size (“2U”) will be a 20x10x10 cm cube, and so on. For many years, the small satellite field was regarded as a rather marginal activity, suitable for universities but not for “serious” applications intended to serve national or defense needs. In order to review the progress made in the field of small satellites on the one hand, and examine how these satellites may be used for the benefit of the national interests on the other hand, and in order to review other issues like the limitations of these satellites and how they may be launched into space, a special workshop was conducted during the conference. The workshop was closed to the general public, and the members of the Israeli and international space communities who were invited to attend it (with the emphasis on small satellite specialists) addressed the aforementioned issues during the first day of the Ilan Ramon International Space Conference.
“As far back as 2004, we held at the Fisher Institute a closed conference devoted to microsatellites (satellites weighing up to 100 kg – A.R.D.),” says Tal Inbar, Head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Institute, one of the initiators and organizers of the workshop. “Since then, the field has developed substantially and we wanted to conduct an in-depth review of the primary issues currently on the agenda. A closed workshop where everyone may voice his/her opinions freely on the one hand, but where the number of participants is sufficiently restricted to allow a serious discussion and discourse on the other hand, seemed to us like the preferable option, so we planned it around four primary fields of interest, with several statements and questions specified for each one of those fields.” Inbar was joined by Dr. Raz Itzhaki-Tamir, who has been concentrating the activity in the field of nanosatellites at IAI for many years, and Meidad Pariente, founder of the Spaceialist Company, which has been engaged, since its establishment, in the design of various satellites and specializes in the content world of small satellites.
“The four fields we addressed were the size limitations of small satellites, access to space, namely – how small satellites may be launched into space, the applications these satellites are capable of, and various restrictions imposed on small satellites – for example security supervision, restrictions on space activity and so forth,” says Inbar.
In addition to the deliberation of principle issues, the participants listened to reviews by Israeli and foreign speakers who shared their extensive experience in the field of small satellites. Hartwig Bischoff, who has, until recently, served in a senior capacity with the European Commission, described Project 50QB, in the context of which fifty nanosatellites are being built around the world, to be launched jointly by a European launch vehicle. Israel has a representative in this project – the Duchifat-2 satellite. Representatives of two commercial companies from Holland and Denmark presented their companies’ respective product lines and described the course small satellites have to go through from the moment the building and testing process is completed to being integrated in a launch vehicle, on the way to outer space. “Today, there is a ‘traffic jam’ on the way to outer space,” explains Inbar. “The majority of small satellite launches take place by exploiting other launching opportunities involving larger satellites. The queue into space is long and will become longer in the coming years.”
One of the most interesting subjects raised at the workshop involved the actual launching of the satellites into space. Inbar recounts: “The primary question we presented to the workshop participants with regard to access into space was whether small satellites require small launch vehicles. All of the studies and forecasts indicate a substantial increase in the number of small satellites that will be launched into space in the coming years. Obviously, in the long run we will no longer be able to rely on “hitch hiking” into space, whether these arrangements involve the launching of satellites from the international space station or launch pods installed in an extensive range of existing launch vehicles. In my opinion, we will witness the evolution of small satellite launchers, designed and built specifically in order to launch small satellites. Several projects are currently under way in this field, worldwide, and most of them are based on airborne launching. I think that the highly diversified capabilities of the Israeli industries should be reflected in this field, too – through the development of a small satellite launch vehicle for diversified uses by the State of Israel and as a commercial satellite launch vehicle.”
A short while after the workshop was conducted, new details were revealed about a unique airborne satellite launch vehicle developed by Boeing USA for DARPA. The new launch vehicle, known as ALASA, is designed to be carried by an F-15 fighter aircraft, and is capable of launching satellites weighing up to 50 kg. “This launch vehicle is really revolutionary,” explains Inbar. “It will use a new, innovative fuel that is exceptionally efficient and will constitute a change of paradigm in the field of miniature satellites, owing to the fuel aspect, the low cost (about US$ 1 million per launch) and the enhanced operational flexibility, namely – prompt launching on demand, within 24 hours at most of the emergence of the need.”
Meidad Pariente, a veteran engineer who worked at IAI for many years, dealing with large satellites, was a co-founder of the Israel Nano Satellite Association (INSA), which designed and built the first Israeli nanosatellite (which has not been launched yet). In the context of the workshop, Pariente described some of the challenges with which the team that developed and built the Duchifat-1 satellite had to cope. This small satellite functions well in outer space, and is one of the most extensively tested satellites in its class – it had been subjected to a “torture sequence” at the testing facilities of IAI, just like its larger brethren.
The representative of an Italian company told the workshop participants about the development of ion (electrical) thrusters, propulsion systems designed specifically for nanosatellites – an activity in which Rafael of Israel has been investing considerable efforts over the last few years. Generally, the standardization of CubeSat satellites enables the client to choose from an extensive variety of components and systems, which can fit products and satellites by different suppliers and manufacturers, just like the fitting of Lego parts.
One of the most intriguing subjects involves the defense applications that are made possible by small satellites. The range of uses they offer is extensive, from surveillance through communication and navigation to signals intelligence and more. No answers were provided to questions pertaining to this field of activity, with the exception of a highly generalized comment: “It is understood that with the emergence of an operational need, the combination of cutting-edge capabilities in research and development – particularly those of countries that possess extensive experience in space – it will be possible to use the small platform offered by miniature satellites in a clever, creative and beneficial manner.”
The workshop assembled together dozens of leading participants from the fields of engineering and research & development as well as from academia, the industries and the defense establishment. To my question of whether the workshop will have follow-up sessions, Inbar replied that the matter is being considered favorably, especially in view of the positive responses of the workshop participants and the suggestions made at the workshop and subsequently. “In fact, we have established here a sort of Israeli forum for nanosatellites, where everyone can speak freely, raise ideas and share various lessons from real-life projects. I sincerely hope that we can set up a structured series of meetings, possibly in smaller forums, in order to exhaust the potential of this field generally, and the unique capabilities available in Israel in particular.”