"Israel is in Need of Additional Communication Satellites"

An exclusive interview with Opher Doron, GM of IAI's Space Division, and David Polack, CEO of Spacecom, about the future plans for communication satellite activity in Israel

Vacuum chamber at an IAI plant (Photo credit: IAI)

Everyone involved in and associated with the Israeli space industry hopes that the events of 2016 will convince the government to finally include in the agenda the space and communication satellite industry and recognize these activities as essential to maintaining the communication and contacts between Israel and the world. Israel must not – so they emphasize – depend exclusively on a pair of underwater cables linking it physically with the world. The essential channel is located high up in outer space.

The month of September 2016 came to be known as the "Black September" of the space industry among the members of the Israeli space community. In early September 2016, the communication satellite Amos-6 exploded during preparations for the scheduled launch where it was located, at Cape Canaveral in Florida, thereby breaking the hearts of the many scientists and engineers who had labored for four years, preparing it for its intended launch. The launching contractor, the SpaceX Company, was in the process of preparing to launch the Amos-6 satellite into space. According to the plans, this satellite should have provided Internet, TV and cellular communication services to Africa, the Middle East and Europe over a period of 15 years, using 15 transponders, a hybrid propulsion system and the ground tracking station of IAI, the satellite manufacturer. All of that exploded into a flaming total loss within seconds. The predecessor of the Amos-6, the Amos-5 satellite, manufactured by a Russian company, had been launched from Kazakhstan in December 2011, but subsequently communication with the satellite was cut off and its services ceased to exist.

The Israel Ministry of Science, Technology & Space, the Prime Minister's Office and the National Security Council are currently preparing a proposal to be submitted to the Israeli government, which is to include a state-government recognition of the national need in the allocation of budgets for the development and manufacture of communication satellites in Israel. The proposal, to be deliberated by the government, is based on a report completed a few months ago by the members of a committee headed by Peretz Vazan, the Director General of the Ministry of Science, Technology & Space. "The report has been endorsed by the Minister of Science, Technology & Space and by the representatives of other government ministries, and the committee recognizes the national need for Israeli communication satellite activity. Now it is up to the government to institutionalize this activity, to define it as a national need and to have it operated by Israeli companies, as the country needs the survivability of its international communication layout. Obviously, this recognition has budget-related implications. The amounts are not overly excessive – about US$ 100 million per year, of which US$ 70 million are to be allocated as support for R&D by the industries and the rest is to be allocated to the Israel Space Agency, for promoting this activity in industry and academia."

The aforementioned report recognizes the fact that the space industry is currently facing a severe crisis that threatens the national space program. It asserts that the state must invest in a new communication satellite and recommends the addition of US$ 120 million per year to the budget of the Israel Space Agency. The committee further points to the need for a setup of four communication satellites operating simultaneously.

Waiting on the Government

The current status of the Israeli communication satellites is as follows: the satellite Amos-2 is in operation but is scheduled to complete its service life soon, while the satellites Amos-3 and Amos-4 are "operating and doing very well in space," as Opher Doron, GM of IAI's Space Division, has stated. "This is what we have at this point – two communication satellites, while the services demanded are numerous and evolving – communication, TV, telephone communication, Internet, cellular communication – and Israel is linked to the world through very few optical fibers under the sea, without which the country will have no communication with the world. IAI's Space Division is one of less than ten manufacturers of communication satellites worldwide, and that is definitely something to be proud of. Governments around the world invest substantial funds in the development of this activity. The European Space Agency has a budget of billions of Euro per year. It should be noted that the Government of Israel is also a major client of communication satellite services. The communication satellites carry government transponders. Accordingly, it is about time, after 20 years of continuous development by this industry, for the government to decide if it is interested in an Israeli communication satellite activity."

So, judging by the report of the Israel Space Agency, the government is indeed interested and recognizes the national need, and the only thing left for it to do is announce it publicly and provide the budgets.

At this interim stage, until an explicit government decision is made, IAI's Space Division is not engaged in the manufacture of a communication satellite, but GM Opher Doron says that "We are currently discussing with the Spacecom Company the manufacture of the Amos-8, a satellite that will differ from the Amos-6 with regard to the scope of services. We are definitely busy designing the next satellite, assuming the government will make a decision. If it does not, we will dissolve the team and they will be diverted to other projects."

However, the Spacecom Company, which purchases the satellites from IAI and is responsible for launching them and for selling the services they provide, could not wait pursuant to the loss of the Amos-6 satellite. David Polack, Spacecom's CEO: "Amos-5 had left us with a whimper. Amos-6 left us with a bang. Our share plummeted. We had to respond promptly as space activity is regulated and there are rules: if you failed to launch a satellite, after a certain period you will lose your slot – your turn in space. IAI was unable to manufacture another satellite within a short period of time, so we promptly ordered a communication satellite from Boeing Satellite Systems International. The satellite we ordered will be the state-of-the-art. It will be designated Amos-17 and after having been launched into space (in a few years) it will replace the Amos-5. Amos-17 will be a more advanced satellite. It is named after the point in space where it will be positioned above the equator – W17. For the time being, we had to look after our clients' interests, so we transferred the communication services of our clients to existing satellites that are already positioned in space and operating. Our communication satellites provide an extensive range of services: TV, wideband Internet, data communication services and support for cellular communication. This is a relatively new item in satellite communication in an era where very soon, every monkey in the jungle will be holding a cellular phone."

With communication satellites, the term used is "positioning in space" owing to the manner in which they are launched. All of the Israeli communication satellites, manufactured by IAI and owned by Spacecom, were launched overseas – either from Russia or from equatorial French Guiana. The launching missiles elevate the communication satellites to an altitude of about 35,000 kilometers and "position" them at a point where they orbit at a speed that matches the rotation of the Earth, so the satellites appear to be "suspended" at the same point. A communication satellite in a geostationary equatorial orbit (GEO) completes one cycle around the Earth every 24 hours. This special mode of operation is suitable for enabling the satellite to maintain communication with the receiving antennae on planet Earth. In fact, the satellite is a transceiver or a relaying unit that picks up transmissions from the ground, amplifies them and sends them back to clients on planet Earth.

Space Espionage

Another satellite activity involves surveillance satellites, also manufactured by IAI's Space Division, where they prefer the title "Surveillance Satellites" over the one used by foreign sources around the world – espionage or intelligence satellites. These Israeli satellites are regarded as capable of reaching any location, photographing and collecting intelligence on every possible front, in neighboring and remote countries. That is the Ofek satellite project.

Various websites around the world reported that between September 19, 1988 and September 13, 2016, Israel launched 11 Ofek spy satellites into space. Unlike the communication satellites, all of the Ofek satellites were launched from Israel, using Israeli launch vehicles (Shavit missiles). A surveillance satellite climbs to an altitude of a few hundreds of kilometers only and orbits around the Earth at a high speed. It weighs a few hundred kilograms, compared to a communication satellite that weighs tons. The Israeli Ofek satellites are the only satellites in the world launched westward, in the opposite direction of the Earth's rotation, in order to avoid launching in the direction of Muslim-Arab countries. The presence of multiple surveillance satellites in space makes it possible to photograph/monitor a target continuously.

Contrary to the civilian communication satellites, the information regarding surveillance satellites and their activity in space is confidential. The clients are IMOD and its various extensions and the various branches of the IDF. Opher Doron, GM of IAI's Space Division, will only say this: "In 1980, the government decided that Israel should achieve independence in the field of surveillance satellite development, and since then we have manufactured almost all satellite systems in Israel. Only very few countries, worldwide, manufacture such satellites, and people are coming here to learn from us. Thus far, 11 surveillance satellites have been launched, but that does not mean that we have 11 satellites in space. The last one launched was the Ofek-11. It was a complicated and difficult birth launching it into space, but it has recovered and now behaves nicely – transmitting astonishing images and demonstrating breathtaking performance. In this field, we are definitely at the world's top echelon, and we have every reason to be proud. We are currently building several other optical and Radar surveillance satellites."

As a result of the loss of the Amos-5 and Amos-6 satellites, IAI's Space Division currently does not have any orders for a new satellite, but the plant, as the GM says, "Has plenty of work" in the form of several interesting and intriguing projects.

This year, the civilian surveillance and research satellite Venus will be launched for a joint project of the Israeli and French space agencies. This satellite will monitor agriculture and the environment, detect changes in flora and spot water shortages. The Venus satellite has a propulsion system by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, it weighs 300 kg and can orbit low to produce high-resolution images. The same vehicle intended to launch the Venus satellite will be used this summer to launch the Italian optical surveillance satellite OpSat-3000. This satellite had been ordered by the Italian government. This will place in service two satellites in a single launch. Additionally, The Eros-C is an optical surveillance satellite built for the ImageSat Company.

Another project is Space-IL, an initiative to launch a spacecraft into space. The Google Company offers a prize of US$ 10 million to be awarded to the party succeeding in reaching the moon, landing, transmitting video clips and advancing 500 meters on the surface of the moon. Several Israeli aficionados decided to respond to the challenge. IAI's Space Division builds the spacecraft and the project has an important educational aspect owing to the involvement of high-school students interested in and learning subjects associated with aviation and space. The spacecraft will weigh half a ton and is to be launched from the USA.

With regard to another aspect, IAI's Space Division focuses on the category of small satellites – nanosatellites and microsatellites weighing dozens of kilograms or less. These satellites are fitted with latest-generation avionics, owing to the miniaturization and smaller dimensions. The new space avionics – the satellite's computers, guidance, steering and control systems – contain a unique space chip developed in Israel, which is the core of the avionics suit that makes it possible to command the satellite. This activity includes the BGUSAT satellite of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Samson satellites of the Technion in Haifa. Samson is a project involving the simultaneous launching of three satellites that are to form an emitter-locating formation, used mainly to locate marine distress emitters that transmit distress signals at sea. IAI's Elta Division is developing the payload and the Space Division is developing the avionics and the satellite itself.

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The complete interview can be found in issue 37 of Israel Defense magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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