Israel in Space sounds like the name of a science fiction show from the 1960s, but in 2016 it’s entirely real. Today Israel is one of only a few countries that can both design and build its own satellites and launch them into orbit. Tal Inbar heads the Space Research Center of the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies in Israel. He was in Toronto and in Montreal recently as keynote speaker for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR) galas, titled Israel in Space, which honoured the late astronaut, Ilan Ramon. He spoke to The CJN prior to the event.
Only a handful of countries have a space program. Why did Israel chose to develop one?
The origin of Israel’s space program is connected to the negotiations with Egypt and the withdrawal by Israel from the Sinai Desert. We wanted to ensure that the Egyptian army kept all the military agreements that are annexed to the peace accord was signed in 1979.
The only way you can verify what your neighbour is doing is from space. That was the trigger to develop our own space program.
How did it develop from there?
At the time, no one would sell to Israel anything related to space – not the launch vehicle, not the components for the satellite, and of course, not a complete satellite.
The mission was conducted by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), [which launched] the first satellite in September 1988. It was a technology demonstrator. Another one came two years later, and the first operational satellite was launched in April 1995. So we have had the capability to watch our neighbours since 1995 with ever-growing quality and resolution.
After the satellite was operating in space very successfully, the decision was made to embark on a new program, to develop our own communications satellite. It took a lot of years before we came up with several ideas for civilian application.
Is there now a private sector component to the space sector in Israel?
Today there are several companies. One is named SpacePharma, which is devoted to conducting experimentation in micro-gravity. You could just send your experiment to this company, and they will send it to space and give you all the results.
There is another company called Effective Space Solutions. They are developing an in-orbit services satellite. It’s like if you were stuck with your car, you can call someone to tow you. This is the same, but in space.
They are developing a new micro-satellite in the range of about 200 kilograms that could be attached to another country’s communications satellite. After all the fuel in a satellite is spent, the small satellite could move you out of the orbit that you are in.
Another company just developed a gel propulsion system for satellites. This company is called New Rocket.
Another company is developing very small satellites with a large inflatable antenna that will give the operators of a fleet of such satellites the opportunity to provide high speed Internet globally and other means of communications, like HDTV, by using very small and relatively cheap satellites.
Another Israeli company, named after Ilan Ramon, is called Ramon Chips. It produces computer chips for space routes.
What about SpaceIL?
SpaceIL is an initiative of several people who wanted to compete in the Google Lunar XPRIZE to land a small vehicle on the moon. The initiative was first envisioned by three young engineers, none of whom remains in the endeavour today. Today it’s an initiative that is conducted and operated by the traditional space industry.
The idea is to land a vehicle on the moon. They have a tentative launch date somewhere in the second half of 2017, but it might be postponed to 2018.
Is the rocketry used to put these satellites into space also Israeli-made?
Yes, it is Israeli-made, but it’s not commercialized. The only user of the launch capabilities is Israel.
Where do these satellites launch from?
It’s from Palmachim Air Force Base, about 15 kilometres south of Tel Aviv, by the seashore. For safety reasons, we are forced to launch to the west. We are the only country in the world that launches to the west, and we lose about one-third of the energetic potential of the launch vehicle. We don’t have any choice, because we don’t have very large territories we can launch from.
Does that mean your satellites have to be one-third smaller than other satellites?
It means we design our satellites to be very small, compact and light weight, with no compromise on the outcomes from the satellites.
We were the first country in the world who built mini-satellites in the range of 250 to 350 kilograms, with the performance of satellites with launch weights of about one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half tonnes. That was a revolution at the time, but during the last two decades, the entire world satellite industry closed the gap with us.
What are the challenges facing the Israeli space program?
The main challenge is budget, like everywhere else.
But the other main challenge is selling satellites to countries that don’t necessarily want to tell the world that the satellite or its components are from Israel.
There are some limitations on the export of space technology. For example, if there is even $1 worth of U.S. hardware inside an Israeli satellite, you have to get permission from the State Department, and they want to give some protection to American industry.
Another challenge is that most countries today don’t just want to buy a satellite. They want some technology transfer. And there are limitations that the Israeli regulator, which is the Ministry of Defence, imposes on various companies. So not any product that we can produce we are allowed to export.
Iran recently launched a missile that could carry nuclear payloads. How concerned are you?
Iran launched a nuclear-capable missile and they showed some very interesting underground facilities, silos and huge depots with dozens of ballistic missiles in each.
Also, new information came from North Korea. They just tested a new type of re-entry vehicle, which is a warhead for an almost-ICBM that has the capability of getting close to the continental United States.
The rule of thumb is that what you see today in North Korea you will see tomorrow in Iran, and we don’t want to see it the next day in Israel. Iranian missile technology and space launchers originate in North Korea, and there is collaboration between the two programs. We know there are Iranians in North Korea when they conduct tests and vice versa.
Does Israel have the capabilities to deal with these threats?
We have a multi-layer defensive system, from Iron Dome to David’s Sling and then Arrow 2 and Arrow 3. Arrow 3 is under an advanced state of development. We have to cope with the known ballistic threats from Hezbollah, from Syria, from Iran and from the south – the rockets which are getting very heavy with warheads from Islamic Jihad and Hamas. But we have to look at what the next generation of threats could be from Iran. And you have to keep an eye on North Korea. You have to be very alert and know what is going on in the whole spectrum of ballistic threats to Israel, and to cope with it, we have our own very sophisticated capabilities.
What is the extent of the co-operation in space between Canada and Israel?
There is co-operation with Canadian companies on next generation Israeli communications satellite, Amos 6, which is due to launch later this year.
The Canadian company is MDA Corporation, which was a major sub-contractor for the satellite. There is a memorandum of understanding between the Israel Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The whole legal framework for co-operation in civilian space is ready, so Canadian companies could be part of the Israeli space industry.
If there are some investors in Canada, there are new and innovative ideas in the space field in Israel. The status of relations between Canada and Israel allows us to bypass some of the limitations with other countries.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.