Space Research & Development
Israel officially entered the space age with the
lift-off of its first satellite, Ofeq-1, from the locally built Shavit
launch vehicle on September 19, 1988. With that launch, Israel joined
an exclusive club of countries - Russia, the United States, England,
Japan, India, France and China - that have developed, produced and launched
their own satellites. Israel has since made important contributions
in a number of areas including laser communication, research into embryo
development and osteoporosis, monitoring pollution, and mapping geology,
soil and vegetation in semi-arid environments.
The next step is being taken in early 2003 when NASA launches the 28th flight of space shuttle Columbia, on mission STS-107.
The seven crewmembers on board include the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
The 16-day mission of Ramon and his colleagues is devoted
to research, with over 80 experiments in earth and space sciences, human
physiology, fire suppression, and the effect of microgravity on a wide
variety of natural phenomena. A colonel in the Israel Air Force with more than 4,000 flight hours accumulated over
his 20-year career, Ramon is the only payload specialist on the mission.
He is the prime crewmember for the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment
(MEIDEX) studying the transport of mineral (desert) dust in the atmosphere
over the Mediterranean Sea and the tropical Atlantic Ocean, which plays
an important role in weather and climate conditions in the region. Ramon
is also investigating sprites, rare forms of lightning that occur above
thunderstorms at heights of up to 90 kilometers.
Together with universities, commercial companies and
other government agencies, young students from around the world are
also participating in the experiments. Among them are schoolchildren
from the Ort-Matzkin School in Haifa,
who are investigating the growth mechanisms of crystalline fibers in
the absence of gravity.
The 1988 launch of Ofeq-1 was coordinated by the Israel
Space Agency (ISA), established five years earlier to support and coordinate
private and academic space-related research into areas such as electronics,
computers, electro-optics and imaging techniques, which had already
been in progress for some 20 years under the management of the National
Committee for Space Research.
Designed as a technological satellite, Ofeq-1 spurred
Israel's capability to send a satellite into orbit. Both Ofeq-1 and
its successor, Ofeq-2, launched in April 1990, were very successful,
sending back a stream of vital technical information. The two satellites
reentered the Earth's atmosphere within six months of their launching.
Ofeq-3 was launched in 1995 with an advanced electro-optical
payload. It more than doubled its expected lifespan, downloading images
of superior quality. The unbroken success of Israel's satellite program
was, however, brought to an abrupt halt with Ofeq-4. This fourth satellite
in the series encountered problems in the second stage of its January
1998 launch. It burned up, setting back Israel's satellite reconnaissance
program by several years.
The latest satellite in the series, Ofeq-5, was launched
by a Shavit launcher in May 2002. Circling the Earth every hour and
a half, Ofeq-5 is a reconnaissance satellite capable of delivering color
images with an extraordinarily high resolution of less than a meter.
The projected lifetime of Ofeq-5 is approximately four years. Meanwhile,
IAI is currently developing the next satellite in the series, Ofeq-6,
with an advanced payload capable of all-weather operation.
In addition to Ofeq-5, photo images are currently being
trans-mitted by EROS-A (the Earth Remote Observation System), a commercial
satellite made by Israel Aircraft Indus-tries (IAI) and launched from
Siberia on December 5, 2000. The EROS-B satellite, currently under development,
is due to be launched in the first half of 2004.
Underlying the success of the Ofeq satellites and their
comparatively inexpensive launch capability are Israeli developments
in the field of miniaturization. Lighter satellites are more efficient
and save hundreds of thousands of dollars per launch.
Israel launched a micro-satellite into orbit in June
1998. Developed at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in
Haifa for a mere $3.5 million, TechSat II is a marvel of miniaturization.
The satellite is an 18-inch cube that weighs just 106 lbs. It orbits
516 miles above the earth, generating its own energy from the sun, and
is packed with miniature cameras, computers and other locally manufactured
space hardware used in communications technology, remote sensing, astronomy
TechSat II comes within photographing distance of Earth
a dozen times a day. The ground-monitoring station at the Technion's
Asher Space Research Institute downloads regular measurements of the
atmosphere's ozone content from its ultraviolet sensors. From its charged-particle
detector, scientists gauge the frequency with which such particles impact
on the satellite and the potential damage they could cause to sensitive
equipment such as computers. They also study the photographs recorded
by its tiny camera.
Begun in the 1980s as a student project, TechSat rapidly
extended its boundaries into a professional satellite program. With
the arrival of immigrant scientists from the former Soviet Union, the
project took on its current form, making the Technion one of the few
universities worldwide to have designed, built and launched a satellite.
Currently, satellites positioned high above the Earth
communicate with each other via radio wave signals, which bounce from
one to the other. But according to Natan Kopeika, head of the Masters
Degree Program in Electro-Optics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev,
lasers will soon significantly upgrade communication between them.
"Lasers use less power, they are lighter and smaller,
and can be more easily directed into a narrow beam-width," Kopeika
explains. "Together with the Technion's Asher Institute, we are
developing techniques for pointing, acquiring and tracking techniques
that will aim laser beams accurately between satellites."
Kopeika foresees a network of such satellites, allowing
communications (telephone, internet, e-mail, cable TV) to be up-linked
from Earth to a first satellite, forwarded to the next and so on, until
they are down-linked back to Earth perhaps halfway across the globe.
Research in Space
As well as developing space hardware, Israel is using
space as a platform to find out more about life on our own planet. In
October 1996, ISA and NASA signed an active umbrella cooperation agreement,
which allows Israeli life sciences experiments to be integrated into
NASA space flights. The experiments conducted in the last five years
have led to greater understanding in the fields of embryogenesis (the
early development of mammals), osteoporosis (loss of bone density) and
the setting up of 'space farms' in order to supply spaceships and space
stations of the future with food.
In February 2000, scientists from Ben-Gurion University
of the Negev (BGU) took a "virtual" ride on a NASA space shuttle
- the Endeavour. Among the shuttle's tasks was an accurate topographical
mapping of the earth's surface. Precise knowledge of height variations
in deserts may help track their expansion, as well as the movement of
sand dunes, both of which are essential for understanding and preserving
the ecology of arid and semi-arid regions. Most deserts have never been
accurately mapped due to a lack of interest in unpopulated regions,
and the difficulties involved in using "radar interferometery"
(a mapping technique which uses radar energy backscattered from the
surface): in desert regions the radar signals can penetrate several
centimeters into the sand providing unreliable results.
To solve the radar-signal problem, a team of scientists
at the earth and Planetary Image Facility (EPIF) at BGU's Depart-ment
of Geography and Environmental Development designed and positioned 13
specially constructed aluminum radar-corner reflector screen devices
across the Negev. These provided the Endeavour with calibration points
for accurate mapping during its five scheduled passes over the region.
Images of land seen from space are also helping scientists
monitor land, water and vegetation on Earth. Satellite images of pasture
and crop productivity in Kazakhstan and drought in the central USA have
both recently been mapped and interpreted, using a system developed
Data from satellites is received in custom-built receiving
stations at BGU's Sde Boker and Be'er Sheva campuses. The information
is calibrated, allowing the measurement of data such as chlorophyll
concentrations in vegetation and pollutant distribution in water. Accurately
estimating the pollution or degradation of the atmosphere, water and
land is an important tool in the conservation of the planet. Research
in this area is also being conducted at the Universities of Tel Aviv
and Bar-Ilan, as well as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In addition,
sea-surface ecology in the Mediterranean, along with its wind-fields,
air-sea interaction, surface saline concentrations and recent oil-spills
in the region are being measured by a remote sensing satellite.
Other related projects currently being developed in
- Automatic generation of digital elevation models (DEM) using Spot
and Landsat imagery
- Mapping of geology, geomorphology and associated seismic activities
in the Jordan Rift Valley
- National database for digital satellite images
- Remote sensing study of vegetation cover as indicators of soil
condition, for example using the colors in cotton fields as an in-dicator
of the levels of soil salination
- Remote sensing of the impact of cloud-aerosol interaction on precipitation
processes and amounts of rainfall
- Subsurface remote sensing
- Remote sensing monitoring of water quality in Lake Kinneret (Sea
of Galilee) and the Mediterranean Sea
- Geomorphology of Mars and Venus
Space vehicles are about to receive a very large (and
quite literal) boost from Israeli research, according to scientists
at Ben-Gurion University. They have shown that a new type of nuclear
fuel could cut the travel time from Earth to Mars from 10 months to
only two weeks.
"It has long been known that the less the nuclear
reactor which powers a space vehicle weighs, the more efficient space
travel is," says Prof. Yigal Ronen, of the university's Department
of Nuclear Engineering. To meet the challenge of a light nuclear reactor,
Ronen examined one element of reactor design - the fuel. The study focused
on the nuclear fission fuel americium-242m, which requires only one
percent of the mass of uranium or plutonium to reach its critical state.
It was found that this fuel could sustain fission in the form of extremely
thin films of these elements, less than a thousandth of a millimeter
thick. In this form, the exceedingly high-energy, high-temperature fission
products can escape the fuel elements and be used for propulsion in
space - either by heating a gas for propulsion, or by fueling a special
generator that produces electricity.
There are still many hurdles to overcome before americium-242m
can be used in space - examining reactor design, refueling, heat removal
and safety provisions for manned vehicles - as well as the high cost
of its manufacture. Americium-242m is already available in small quantities,
and Ronen believes that the fuel will eventually be used for space travel.
Many international space programs have taken an interest
in Israel's space achievements. In addition to NASA,
Israel has formal space research cooperation agreements with France,
Germany, Russia, the Ukraine and the Netherlands. Israel recently signed
a similar agreement with India, which provides for the installation
of an Israeli-produced telescope on an Indian satellite due to be launched
in the next two years.
Israel sent its first geostationary telecommunications
satellite into orbit on May 16, 1996. The Afro-Mediterranean Orbital
System (AMOS) was built by Israel Aircraft Industries in partnership
with Alcatel Espace of France and Daimler-Benz Aerospace of Germany.
Launched by the French-built Ariane-4 launch vehicle, the AMOS communications
satellite continues to provide high quality broadcasting and communication
services for the growing markets of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Due to its technological and economic success, IAI is due to launch
an upgraded AMOS-2 satellite in early 2003.
The TAUVEX (Tel Aviv University Ultra-Violet Explorer)
is one of several major multi-national space research projects in which
Israel is an important player. A cluster of three ultra-violet telescopes,
the TAUVEX will operate in a Russian space observatory together with
instruments developed in Russia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland,
the United Kingdom and the United States. It is designed to image astronomical
objects in the ultraviolet range, including different types of hot stars
(such as white dwarfs and mixed-type binaries), and young massive stars,
which emit large amounts of ultraviolet radiation and ionize the interstellar
medium and are thus important in star formation and the evolution of
galaxies. TAUVEX'S innovations include reducing sky background, a longer
observing time per target and duration of service (up to five years).
High on the list of tasks set for the TAUVEX is a survey of Local Group
galaxies and nearby clusters of galaxies, which were not possible to
observe through the Hubble Space Telescope because of its narrow field
A spin-off of TAUVEX is a small telescope with a resolution
of five meters that will be used on the DAVID, a small commercial remote
sensing satellite. Developed jointly by an Israeli hi-tech company and
a German firm, the project is supported by the E.U. and ISA.
Other joint projects include:
SLOSHAT, conducted with the Dutch Space Agency.
As its expressive name suggests, the project examines the phenomenon
of 'sloshing' in the larger fuel tanks of satellites. Scheduled
for launching from a NASA space shuttle in the near future, it will
be equipped with an Israeli thruster system.
ISA, in cooperation with NASA and the French
Space Agency (CNES) is also funding a small laboratory at the Israeli
Nuclear Research Center, which inspects every component of a shuttle
before launch, to ensure it will be able to survive the hostile
A Ground Receiving Station for satellite images
was established by ISA on the grounds of the Israel Aircraft Industries,
where images of the French Spot satellite and the European Radar
Satellite (ERS) are routinely received
Israel will participate in the European Global
Navigation Overlay System (EGNOS), as well as the new Galileo project.
A joint project sponsored by ISA and the Survey
of Israel is working on the establishment of a Global Positioning
System (GPS) infrastructure in Israel for geodetic and geophysical
An agreement has been signed between ISA-NASA
and the Israel Meteorological Service, together with the scientific
cooperation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to establish
a ground validation site in Israel for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring
Mission (TRMM). The first mission dedicated to measuring tropical
and subtropical rainfall, the TRMM will help improve weather forecasts,
predict wind patterns and ocean currents, floods and droughts.
In 1999, ISA and NASA established in Israel the
Middle East Interactive Data Archive (ISA-MEIDA) in order to create
and maintain an Earth observing data center available through the
internet to the research community and to the general public. It
is one of the international data centers participating in NASA's
Earth Observing System Data Information System (EOSDIS).
Israeli investigators are also attracting notice
for new theories in the realm of pure science - theories that may
one day contribute to the exploration of space. A long-held hypothesis
about unseen and unmeasured 'dark matter' in the universe that holds
together galaxies is being challenged by Prof. Israel Dostrovski
of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Dostrovski proposes
that if Newton's law of gravitation is slightly adjusted, the behavior
of star clusters and galaxies makes perfect sense. New astronomical
data have begun corroborating this theory.
Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs