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Israel Conquers Space

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Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Look up at the night sky. Amidst the stars is a small satellite you cannot see, circling the earth every ninety minutes, peering down through clouds and darkness. It is called Ofek 9 and it is a sophisticated eye-in-the-sky, both built and launched by Israel. It tracks what Israel’s enemies are scheming and it can see fine details on the ground, night or day, fair weather or foul. It is not alone, it has several sisters. And it is strong evidence that improbably, Israel has become one of a handful of nations (and by far the smallest of them) which lead in both military and civilian space technology. How this happened conveys important lessons.

The Israel Space Agency was founded in 1982. In 1984, then Defense Minister Moshe Arens instructed IAI (then, Israel Aircraft Industries, now known as Israel Aerospace Industries) to join with other Israeli companies to design and build satellites and a rocket powerful enough to launch them. Arens was highly qualified to make this decision. A Lithuanian-born naturalized American, he studied aeronautical engineering at MIT and Caltech, then emigrated to Israel in 1948. After a five-year stint at Technion, he spent nine years as deputy head of IAI.

Only four years after Arens’ decision, on September 19, 1988, Israel became the eighth nation in the world to launch a satellite. It was called Ofek 1 (Ofek means ‘horizon’ in Hebrew). It weighed 343 pounds and like many of Israel’s achievements, it was made the hard way.

Every other nation’s satellites, without exception, are launched from west to east. This is because doing so uses the slingshot effect of the earth, which rotates west to east at about 1,300 kilometers per hour (800 miles per hour), and thus helps rockets gain the speed needed to launch satellites into orbit.

But Israel cannot launch its satellites from west to east, because that would send the launch rocket’s trajectory over hostile Arab territory. So Israel launches satellites from east to west over the Mediterranean, against the spin of the earth. Zvi Kaplan, current Director of the Israel Space Agency, told The Jewish Herald, a Houston, Texas daily, that an east-to-west launch loses “about 30 percent in the effective payload or the overall launch weight − so the policy in Israel was to miniaturize everything, yet not to pay in performance.”

Necessity has spurred invention. Israel has become a leader in optical and radar imaging of the earth and in miniaturizing satellites. Jaime Lerner, the former Jewish mayor of Curitiba, a highly innovative Brazilian city, once said that if you want true creativity, chop two zeros off your budget. Israel’s space industry is proof. With tiny resources and major constraints, Israel has become a world leader in miniaturizing satellites, simply because it had to. It has not all been smooth sailing. Satellite launch attempts failed in 1991 and again in 1993, and Ofek 4 fell into the sea on January 22, 1998, as did Ofek 6, on September 6, 2004.

The former chair of the Israel Space Agency, Dr. Yitzhak Ben Israel, now head of the National R&D Council, told the online newspaper Ynet, “With Ofek 9, Israel now has about ten satellites working in a joint system. One of them completes a round every ninety minutes, then the second one comes along, then the third one, and so on. At a given moment, there is not one place which interests us in the Middle East that is not being shot. In fact, a country will not be able to conduct any secret operations in the Middle East without the area being covered by one of our satellites… Iran won’t be able to transfer different materials without us noticing.”

“There are seven independent countries in space, and in terms of quality and technology only the United States comes before Israel,” he said. Officially, Ofek satellites can see objects as small as two feet long on the ground. In practice, Ben Israel said, the resolution is far sharper.

For Israel, space has more than defense implications. It is a vital civilian industry. The global space market amounts to a huge $250 billlion annually. Israel’s goal is to grab just over 3 percent of it, or some $8 billion, within a few years. It has already made a good start.

Geosynchronous Israeli civilian satellites already offer communication channels to companies all over the world. Geosynchronous satellites orbit the earth at precisely the same speed as the earth turns and therefore remain on one stationary spot, very useful for providing TV, phone and internet communication channels. The first such satellite, Amos 1, was put into orbit by a European Ariane rocket on April 5, 1995. Amos 5 will launch in 2011 and Amos 4, in 2012 (satellites are numbered according to when development begins, not when they launch). The Amos satellites have proved profitable, as there is a global shortage of satellite communication channels.

Israeli high-tech companies compete fiercely with one another in global markets. But in space technology, they collaborate like the parts of a Swiss watch. A powerful consortium links IAI, Elbit, El-Op, Rafael, Elta, Elisra, Spacecom, Gilat and other companies in designing, building and launching military and civilian satellites and selling their services. I wish this same model could be applied to other strategic industries, like software and semiconductors.

The major problem for Israel in converting its space technology into export dollars is, ironically, the uniqueness and excellence of its satellites. Selling this know-how would cost Israel its huge military advantage in space. This dilemma – what can be sold abroad without endangering Israel’s security – exists for all of Israel’s defense companies.

I spoke with Dr. Daphne Getz, a researcher associate at The Technion’s S. Neaman Institute, author of two studies of the commercial benefits of space. Getz and her team interviewed a wide range of Israeli space experts. In her view, “the space industry has benefits other than military – prestige, collaboration with other nations (Israel works on space with the U.S., Russia and India), and it attracts youths to study science. We need a National Space Program with clear focused goals, to develop technology that finds wider use beyond space.”

The fact that space “attracts youths to study science”, in Getz’s words, is in my view crucially important and vastly underrated and brings to mind America’s moon shot. Some readers may recall U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s stirring words in his commencement address, on September 12, 1962, at Rice University: “We will go to the moon. We will go to the moon by the end of this decade.” The National Aeronautical and Space Administration was established and on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface, uttering the immortal “one small step…” words.

The cost was enormous. Many bean-counting economists think the money was wasted, citing the lack of tangible benefits. I believe they are wrong. A generation of young Americans was inspired to study science and engineering by the moon project. This alone made the moon shot worthwhile. It contrasts with the decision made by former President George W. Bush in 2006 to end the space shuttle project. When the space shuttle Discovery makes its last flight next spring, America will have to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to put its astronauts in space for years to come. Is America that poor?

Israel too has used space to inspire youths. The visionary idea to have Technion students build a satellite was proposed in the early 1990s by Physics Prof. Giora Shaviv, in partnership with Haim Eshed, then Head of space programs for the Ministry of Defense. The student-built TechSat Gurwin II (named after the U.S. textile magnate and philanthropist Joe Gurwin) had thin-film solar cells and was launched successfully at 10:15 pm on Saturday evening, July 10, 1998. It weighed 48 kilograms (about 106 pounds) and was designed to remain operational for about a year. Instead, the little satellite sent back signals for almost 12 years, a record for university-built micro-satellites, falling silent only this April. Like America’s moon shot, TechSat fired the imagination of young Israelis.

It also inspired philanthropist Gurwin. As an immigrant to America from Lithuania with no money, Gurwin became a textile magnate. He partly funded TechSat Gurwin I. In 1995, the third stage of the Russian rocket that was supposed to put it into orbit failed and Gurwin I fell into the Sea of Okhotsk. Former Technion President Zehev Tadmor told me how he called Gurwin, with great trepidation, to give him the bad news that his donation had gone “down into the sea” instead of “up into space.” Gurwin reassured Tadmor, told him about his own resilience as a poor immigrant and funded another try. This one worked. Gurwin’s philanthropic fund lost a fortune to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. He was undaunted and continued to support Israel from his personal funds. He passed away last year.

For Israel’s space efforts, the future is bright. Later this year, according to Kaplan, Israel’s first “nanosatellite”, the Incline, will be launched by the Israel Space Agency. Weighing in at a featherweight 12 kilograms (26 pounds), the little satellite will attract much interest, as many nations face shrinking government budgets in the post-2007/9 global crisis era and need to do more with less money.

“If you compare the typical Israeli radar,” Zvi Kaplan notes, “it’s at least equivalent in performance to its European competitors, but is twenty percent of the weight. And [for satellites] weight is related to cost.”

“More with less” has been the mantra of Israel’s space program from the outset. The question may now become not whether Israel can find buyers for its defense-driven space technology but how much of it Israel is willing to sell.