The Race for Space Intelligence

Israel is leading the world space industry alongside the USA and Europe. An exclusive interview with the people at IAI charged with the task of keeping Israel one step ahead

The Missiles, Systems & Space Group at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is the chief integrator of the Ofeq-10 surveillance satellite, launched into space in early April. The Ofeq-10 is one of the world’s most advanced SAR satellites and is capable of producing high quality imagery under any climatic conditions. The small size of the State of Israel notwithstanding, as far as the field of surveillance satellites is concerned, it is currently regarded as one of the world’s three space superpowers, alongside the USA and Europe, leaving behind such giants as China, Russia and many others.

Although in some eyes IAI is not a part of the Israeli high-tech world owing to its government corporation image, in reality it is one of Israel’s most technologically advanced industries. As far as its core activities are concerned, it is regarded as a global leader – more than any other start-up company involved in these fields.

“The Missiles, Systems & Space Group has 3,600 employees, including 2,100 engineers, 800 of whom have master and doctoral degrees. It is a high-tech division to all intents and purposes. Here we develop homing/guidance heads, inertial navigation systems, training and simulation systems (e.g. the Saknai system and the Ehud real-time air combat training, debriefing and safety enhancement system for fighter aircraft pilots, which includes a missile-shaped pod), as well as command and control systems including situation and command rooms. Additionally, the Group is also involved in cyber warfare,” explains Boaz Levi, IAI EVP and Head of the Missiles, Systems & Space Group. Levi was in charge of the development of the Arrow system in a previous capacity.

The Group has six industrial plants: one of those plants, HALAL, manufactures surveillance and communication satellites. Another plant, MALAM, is responsible for manufacturing satellite launch vehicles. The combination of the abilities to develop both the launch vehicle and the satellite enables the State of Israel to launch satellites into space independently, mainly for intelligence and early warning purposes, thereby extending its strategic depth.

“Each project has a prime contractor. In the case of the Ofeq-10 satellite, IAI is the prime contractor. Some of the assemblies are purchased from sub-contractors. Rafael and IMI are involved in the aspect of rocket propulsion. We design the assemblies, order them from Rafael and IMI, assemble everything and test system safety. These are not off-the-shelf products. IAI had supervised and validated the development processes by Rafael and IMI. The remaining parts are manufactured by other sub-contractor and a major percentage is manufactured by IAI. El-Op are our partners in the field of optics. The most important thing is the testing of the satellite, which is performed here at IAI. The entire validation process is highly complex, and is possibly the most important element of the development effort,” explains Levi.

The Israeli satellite program was initiated in 1979, pursuant to the signature of the peace agreement with Egypt. After the withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, a need arose for a resource that would provide Israel with strategic early warning without violating Egyptian sovereignty. In 1988, Ofeq-1, Israel’s first satellite, was launched. “It was a daring strategic decision – almost insane under the circumstances in those days,” says Ofer Doron, CEO of IAI’s HALAL plant.

At the present time, Israel has optical surveillance satellites and radar surveillance satellites in space. IAI had also promoted communication satellites, and that is how this field of activity was born in Israel. “While a communication satellite maintains a fixed position, a surveillance satellite orbits the earth. Consequently, it is important to have many satellites. The satellites are being ordered by IMOD, and IMOD determines the number of satellites out there. In 2008 we accomplished a technological breakthrough with the launching of the TecSAR satellite, a surveillance satellite fitted with a SAR payload by ELTA – a division and subsidiary of IAI,” explains Levi.

“It is a small club of countries that possess independent space capabilities. If you want to control a satellite, you must develop it yourself. Israel has that capability. She is completely independent, and can position it wherever she wants and see whatever she wants to see.”

One of the aspects currently evolving in the field of surveillance satellites is the aspect of sub-meter resolution imagery capabilities, namely – images with the resolution of less than one meter. “Only three countries have achieved these capabilities. The USA has the NRO satellites with their amazing resolution and telescope diameters of a few meters. In 2012, they donated to NASA ‘surplus’ 2.4 meter diameter mirrors which they did not need anymore. These mirrors are the equivalent of the mirrors of the Hubble space telescope. In other words, the USA has many Hubble telescopes in the sky, looking down at earth, to a range of hundreds of kilometers,” says Doron.

“The French have the Pléiades satellites positioned at an altitude of 700 kilometers with a resolution of 70 centimeters. They are unable to descend from that altitude. They also have Helios type military satellites, which probably possess even better capabilities. Israel has four high-resolution optical surveillance satellites in space. We intend to launch two more satellites in the next two years, one for Israel and one as a cooperative project with Italy. The official figure is a resolution of fifty centimeters at an altitude of 600 kilometers.

“We belong to a very small club of very high resolution imagery capabilities – an issue that is becoming increasingly important to intelligence. Today, everyone has access to 50-centimeter resolution through Google Earth, but this intelligence has two problems: it is only fifty centimeters, and the materials Google updates are a few months old. There is a reason for it. The intention is for you to purchase current imagery from the company that produces it. That’s how the market works. The new satellite we intend to launch will put us in second place, right after the USA. The Chinese are far behind. They encounter problems obtaining components. The same goes for the Russians – they are currently in the region of one meter.”

Track, not Scan

The Israeli satellites are different in their operating philosophy, too. While other countries scan large areas, the Israeli satellites are intelligence-oriented. “We manufacture a light, agile satellite capable of photographing numerous targets where they are located. A high percentage of the other satellites have limited maneuverability and a high territorial scanning capability. They scan large areas for territorial charting purposes. We manufacture satellites for intelligence purposes, namely – for the purpose of photographing the targets where they are located. This is a philosophical difference that pertains to the development process. For this purpose you need high maneuverability in order to produce numerous images where the targets are located,” explains Doron. “Eventually, the constraint of developing small satellites turned out to be an advantage.”

The people at IAI explain that getting the satellite to the appropriate point in space is not a trivial undertaking. There is a connection between altitude, trajectory and resolution. The satellite in question is significantly smaller than other satellites around the world, as it is launched from Israel, subject to all of the constraints such as where you are launching from, the population in the area and the direction to which you launch. “We launch westward – the only country in the world that does so. Our engineers have to cope with constraints that engineers elsewhere never encounter,” explains Levi.

“The radar capability complements the optical capability. It enables us to produce imagery under any weather conditions. It works in other frequencies and enables us to track objects that are difficult to track using the optical capability. The satellite is like any other camera: it should be pointed at what you want to shoot. It orbits the earth, and at the same time the earth rotates. So, during a considerable part of your orbits, the targets are not within your coverage area. The satellite can photograph the target about 2-4 times a day. It must pass within a distance of several hundreds of kilometers of it in order to photograph it, and that is why it is possible. Eventually, IMOD must prioritize what to photograph.”

At IAI they say that the solution is to position more satellites in space. Another solution is working with satellites that follow a higher trajectory, thereby photographing a larger area. The question that arises is if Israel has been active in this field since 1988, why doesn’t it have more satellites in space? Why has it not evolved into a production line? “You must understand that what we do here is not a production line of satellites. Each satellite has a different technology, different capabilities. No two satellites are alike. Eventually, it is a matter of budgets and needs dictated by IMOD. IMOD determines how many satellites are required and places the orders accordingly. Nevertheless, there is a minimum number of satellites that needs to be manufactured so as to retain the personnel. If we went below a certain rate, we would have to dismiss employees,” explains Levi.

The satellite has solar panels that provide it with electrical power. These panels surround the main body and follow the sun. The moment the satellite has stabilized, they open up, and from this moment on, it sees sunshine and darkness. At IAI they say that the temperature regime is extreme and that the optronic systems must withstand a temperature range of minus 200 to plus 200 degrees Celsius. “The satellite does it several times a day for years. The systems tire out just because of that. You need to add the stress of the rotational speed. The materials we use had been developed for the world space industry. Some of the electronics are developed at IAI. How do you build an electronic array that contracts and expands all the time? That is a complicated undertaking,” explains Levi.

Some of the satellite’s components look like particularly thin metal bags with holes. Why holes? As on earth there is air and in space there isn’t. When the satellite reaches space, you must ensure that the bag does not burst. That is just one example of the technological challenges with which the engineers of IAI need to cope. As the satellite in question is a radar satellite, it has an antenna attached to the body by specialized arms. These arms, too, are made from very light and exceptionally strong composite materials.

One of the primary tasks of IAI is to test the system before it is launched. It is a lengthy process consisting of a large number of tests which are performed in a dedicated clean room built especially for this purpose. It is the only place in Israel where satellites are tested. “We check the satellite horizontally and vertically. Each part installed in the satellite undergoes a series of tests before it is released for assembly. The process of manufacturing a satellite, from the moment the order is issued until it is ready to launch takes about 3 years. Parts must be ordered, tested, assembled and retested,” explains Levi.

The satellite integration halls at IAI have special vacuum chambers that enable testing of the separate assemblies as well as the entire satellite as a complete system. Additionally, there is a special testing jig for the telescope of the optical surveillance satellites. There are chambers for testing the assemblies under changing temperatures, as in space. After the satellite has been assembled, it goes into a special chamber which enables simulating of its functioning in space. “In this chamber we test all of the satellite’s assemblies under environmental conditions that simulate the conditions in space as closely as possible. We have to check that the radar antenna extends as required, so we simulate an extension of the antenna. We check each operation dozens of times. We operate the satellite, issue commands to it and verify that it transmits images back to the ground station. We check every pixel and simulate an atmospheric medium so as to verify that the communication link functions as required,” explain Levi.

“Then we have special vibrators that simulate the launching environment. We must test each and every part subject to the vibration profile of the launch. The combined tests give us the confidence that the satellite is ready to launch. There is also a huge acoustic chamber where the satellite is placed and vibrated as if it is on the launch vehicle. You must bear in mind that during the launch, the satellite sustains massive acoustic noises generated by the launching missile, and it must survive all that.

“At the end of the day, our advantage stems from our human capital. We have engineers from the aeronautics and space program at the Technion (Levi is a graduate of the first class of that program that included a space element), we have many physicists, electronics engineers, software engineers and specialists in many other disciplines. They come here and we train them for the space industry. It takes us several years of hard work to train a system engineer who can lead the manufacturing of a satellite from scratch to the launch.”

The Space Market

The space market is, indeed, a substantial market, they say at IAI. But it is also a political market. Similarly to the purchasing of fighter aircraft, the purchasing of satellites is a political decision more than a technological one in most instances. “There are several countries showing interest. This is an intricate and complex marketing activity. It is a national market. Whoever buys a satellite, buys it for national needs. Civil and defense needs are mixed together. In many of those countries, these are presidential level projects – not just another purchase of a weapon system. Our cooperation with Italy has been a major success for us,” says Doron. “We have an emerging civilian market. We are working with France on a scientific surveillance satellite branded ‘Venus’ that would be capable of providing data to scientists. It may tell you, for example, whether you need to irrigate or fertilize a field – all from space.”