Israel Science & Technology: Space Research & Development
Research in Space
Shooting for the Moon
Experimenting in Microgravity
Israel officially entered the space age with the lift-off of its first satellite, Ofek-1, from the locally built Shavit launch vehicle on September 19, 1988. With that launch, Israel joined an exclusive club of countries that have developed, produced, and launched their own satellites. Israel has since made important contributions in several areas, including laser communication, research into embryo development and osteoporosis, monitoring pollution, and mapping geology, soil, and vegetation in semi-arid environments. Together with universities, commercial companies, and other government agencies, young students from around the world are also participating in the experiments. For example, schoolchildren from the Ort-Matzkin School in Haifa investigated the growth mechanisms of crystalline fibers in the absence of gravity.
The next step was taken in early 2003 when NASA launched the 28th flight of the space shuttle Columbia, on mission STS-107. The seven crewmembers on board included the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Approximately 82 seconds after the shuttle’s launch, a piece of foam covering the ship’s main fuel tank broke off and struck the left wing panels, creating a 6-10 inch hole. This compromised the integrity of the craft and allowed for hot gasses to enter and destroy the wing when the crew later attempted to return to earth. Upon reentry into earth’s atmosphere, temperatures on the shuttle’s damaged wing reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the shuttle slowly broke apart. It was eventually destroyed before it hit the water, and there were no survivors.
The UN accepted Israel as a member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on October 30, 2015, despite pressure from Arab states. Egypt was one of 117 countries that voted in favor of Israel joining the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Affairs, the first time that Egypt had ever voted in Israel’s favor at the UN.
It was announced in February 2016 that Israel would be admitted as an official member of the UN Committee on Space Affairs. The UN Office of Space Affairs (UNOOSA) extended an invitation to the Israel Space Agency to cooperate on civilian space matters on February 3, 2016.
Overcoming opposition from Palestinian and various Arab delegations, Israel was elected to one of six positions heading the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in October 2017.
In February 2018, six Israeli astronauts embarked on a mission to the D-MARS facility in the Ramon Crater, where they engaged in a simulation of living on Mars. The D-MARS (Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station) facility is part of a network of simulation facilities around the world helping to plan for future missions to Mars. During their stay, the volunteer astronauts tested communications equipment as well as their space suits and conducted experiments.
The 1988 launch of Ofek-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, Ofek-1 spurred Israel’s capability to send a satellite into orbit. Both Ofek-1 and its successor, Ofek-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.
Ofek-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 Ofek-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.
n May 2002, Ofek-5 was launched by a Shavit launcher. Circling the Earth every hour and a half, Ofek-5 is a reconnaissance satellite capable of delivering color images with an extraordinarily high resolution of less than a meter. The projected lifetime of Ofek-5 is approximately four years. Meanwhile, IAI is currently developing the next satellite in the series, Ofek-6, with an advanced payload capable of all-weather operation.
In addition to Ofek-5, photo images are currently being transmitted by EROS-A (the Earth Remote Observation System), a commercial satellite made by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and launched from Siberia on December 5, 2000. The EROS-B satellite was launched in 2004.
In 2007 Google’s “Lunar X Prize” contest was announced, offering a hefty $30 million prize to the first team to land a robot on the moon, explore the surface for 500 meters, and send high-definition video back to earth. In October 2015, an Israeli team known as SpaceIL revealed that they had signed a contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch their submission using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher in 2017. If successful, the mission would be Israel’s first trip to the moon, as well as the world’s first private lunar mission. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin unveiled the robot, roughly the size of a dishwasher, at a press conference announcing the partnership between SpaceIL and SpaceX.
The Israeli Ofek-11 spy satellite was launched into space on September 13, 2016, from the Palmahim air base South of Tel Aviv. The satellite’s predecessor, the Ofek-10, was sent up in 2014, and the Ofek-9 was launched in 2010.
Israel launched its first-ever nano-satellite successfully on February 15, 2017. The BGUSAT is slightly larger than a standard milk carton, weighs approximately 11 lbs., and is equipped with top-of-the-line cameras to photograph and analyze weather phenomena and send data back to its home base at Ben-Gurion University. The satellite was launched by the India Space Research Organization, as part of a record-breaking launch that put 104 satellites into orbit with a single rocket.
The first Israeli environmental research satellite, a joint venture between the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and its French counterpart CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, was launched from a facility in French Guiana on August 2, 2017, at 4:58 a.m. The satellite, named VENµS (standing for Vegetation and Environment Monitoring on a New Micro Satellite), will take high-resolution photographs tracking desertification, erosion, pollution, natural disasters, and other issues linked to climate change. Its mission is to last 4.5 years, during which it will orbit the earth over 23,800 times.
On July 6, 2020, Israel Aerospace Industries launched a new reconnaissance satellite – “Ofek 16” – which will provide high-quality surveillance for Israel’s military intelligence. An even more sophisticated observation satellite, EROS-C3, was launched on December 30, 2022.
Underlying the success of the Ofek 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, and geoscience.
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 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.
The Micro ScoutCam 1.2 is manufactured by Israeli company Medigus Ltd. and is the world’s smallest high-definition camera. The camera is used for medical and industrial applications, helping doctors assess patients and helping workers do their jobs more effectively. On August 13, 2014, it was announced that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would be incorporating the Micro ScoutCam 1.2 into its Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR) tool, using it as the primary baroscopic camera for the tool while it is in space. The camera is ideal for the mission because it is very durable and able to withstand extreme temperatures and conditions. The VIPIR tool was launched to the International Space Station at the end of July and will be using the Micro ScoutCam 1.2 for its Robotic Refueling Mission, servicing free-floating satellites.
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 master’s degree program in Electro-Optics at Ben-Gurion University, 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 interferometry” (a mapping technique that 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 Department 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 at BGU.
Data from satellites is received in custom-built receiving stations at BGU’s Sde Boker and Beer 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 Israel include:
- 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 indicator 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 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.
The AstroRad Radiation Shield, developed and designed by Tel-Aviv-based StemRad, is a vest made to help shield volatile human tissues from radiation exposure in space. The vest was specifically developed for missions to Mars and will be tested on a 2018 unmanned moon-orbit mission on the Orion spacecraft (a project of Lockheed Martin, NASA, and the European Space Agency).
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, 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 of view.
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.
The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs signed an agreement with the Israeli government in June 2015, providing for increased cooperation in space technology. The agreement is aimed at exploring the possibility of using space for civilian purposes.
Mark Zuckerberg announced that his social networking giant, Facebook, is going to launch an Israeli satellite to bring internet access to much of sub-Saharan Africa. The project, revealed in October 2015, will focus on access to job listings, agricultural information, healthcare, education, and Facebook’s social networking services and its messenger platform. The AMOS-6 satellite cost about $300 million, has a life of roughly 16 years and was set to be launched in early 2016. On September 1, 2016, an explosion tore through the Cape Canaveral launch pad during a test launch, destroying the AMOS-6 satellite as well as the SpaceX rocket that would have delivered it to the sky. Israeli experts stated that a replacement satellite could be prepared for launch within two years.
During the 2015 International Astronautical Conference (IAC), held in Jerusalem, the Israel Space Agency (ISA) and NASA announced a partnership, “in the exploration and research of space for the betterment of mankind and for peaceful use.” According to officials from both organizations, the partnership will focus on, “joint missions, personnel and scientific data exchanges, ground-based research facilities, space exploration and operations missions, joint workshops and meetings, scientific instruments onboard aircraft and spacecraft, sounding rocket and scientific balloon flights, space communications, educational outreach, and other spacecraft and space research platforms.”
Other joint projects include:
- ExoMars, a joint mission by the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency. The ExoMars spacecraft will have its landing guided by rockets manufactured by Israel’s Rafael systems once it arrives on Mars. The ExoMars module was launched on March 21, 2016, and was expected to reach Mars sometime in 2018. Rafael supplied mini rocket propulsion systems to the module’s fuel tanks, to prevent a rough landing and avoid a disastrous explosion. Propulsion models developed by Rafael have been used in dozens of satellites, including 30 that are currently active.
- 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 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 space environment.
- 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 applications.
- 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, and 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).
Shooting for the Moon
After eight years of preparations by 250 people, $100 million, and a large dose of Israeli chutzpah, the SpaceIL Israeli unmanned spacecraft Beresheet lifted off from Cape Canaveral Kennedy Space Center on February 21, 2019, aiming to reach the Moon on April 11.
The project had an estimated cost of $95 million, and donors included U.S. billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, South African billionaire Morris Khan, and the Schusterman Family Foundation. Only three other countries have successfully landed on the moon: Russia, the United States, and China.
The spacecraft orbited the moon, making Israel just the 7th country to achieve that feat. Ultimately, however, Israel did not succeed in joining the United States, China, and Russia as the only countries to land a spacecraft on the Moon.
The landing sequence began as planned on April 11, 2019, with Beresheet taking a “selfie” photo of a sign that said, “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The nation of Israel lives”). The control room subsequently lost contact with one of the landing detectors when the spacecraft was only about six miles from the surface. After entering the Moon’s orbit, the spacecraft lost its main engine and went into an uncontrolled descent, and crashed on the surface.
Experimenting in Microgravity
On September 2, 2020, Israel launched the Dido III nano-satellite manufactured by the Israeli SpacePharma company in collaboration with the Israeli Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. “Space Pharma is currently the only commercial company, except for NASA, with a space research laboratory,” according to the director of the Israeli Space Agency, Avi Blasberger.
The satellite is carrying a tiny laboratory the size of a shoebox in which four medical scientific experiments to test drug resistance will be conducted under conditions of microgravity. The Sheba Medical Center was also involved in developing the project, making it one of the world’s first hospitals to launch a medical experiment in space. The goal is to test the theory that microgravity in space reduces antibiotic resistance acquisition in the hope it will shed light on how to solve the problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics on earth.
Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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Photo: Eros B Satellite - The Israel Space Agency, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.