The birth of the Israeli space program

Let’s have a look at the Israeli space program. The Israel Space Agency or ISA (in Hebrew סוכנות החלל הישראלית‎ – Sochnut HaChalal HaYisraelit), founded following a government decision in 1983, is a national agency operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Agency is responsible for initiating, leading and coordinating all activities of the civilian space program.

Development of ballistic missiles was essential for survival of Israel as a country surrounded by hostile Arab neighbours intent on physical annihilation of the Jewish state. The achieved national ballistic missile capabilities subsequently enabled space launches. Naturally, the major objectives of the space program were also driven by the national security requirements and concentrated on space based reconnaissance and communications. The country’s space effort received important boost in 1982 with the formation of the Israel Space Agency (ISA).

The National Committee for Space Research (NCSR) – The Israeli space program

The National Committee for Space Research (NCSR) was a committee established in 1960 by the Israeli Government in affiliation with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, based in Jerusalem, was established in 1961 by the State of Israel to foster contact between Israeli scholars in the sciences and humanities and create a think tank for advising the government on research projects of national importance) to explore the feasibility of space launches and satellites development, and later, to create the Israel Space Agency. The committee, made of a group of dedicated to the research and development of space-related sciences, had as one of its objective the goal to demonstrate Israeli capabilities to its then-antagonistic neighbours, especially Egypt.

The committee was formed to increase research activities across the academic communities in Israel. While at the time, establishing a space program was not particularly one of its goals, during the 1960s to the late 1970s, the committee developed the infrastructure needed for research and development in space exploration and sciences. One of the NCSR’s earliest achievements took place in 1961 with the launch of its first two-stage rocket.

At the same time, Israel’s missile program was also established. As with other countries, the ballistic and other missile developments took precedence over the exploration or use of outer space. The Israeli Space Launch Vehicle was developed as an off-shot of its Ballistic Missile program. This interdependency resulted in a blurry line between civilian and military developments in Israel.

Due to the stressed relationship between Israel and its neighbours, Israel has always attempted to acquire intelligence from various sources. During the late 1960s, Israel received satellite imagery from the United States of America, however the resolution was degraded, the coverage was limited, and it was not in real-time. Following the Yom Kippur War, from October 6 to 25, 1973, Israel started changing their focus to developing an independent source of space-based intelligence. This opinion was strengthen after it became known that the U.S. withheld critical intelligence information during the war, obtained by reconnaissance satellites, on Arab offensive formation. Despite its cooperation with the United States of America, Israel did not have routine access to real-time satellite intelligence data: “For years we have been begging the Americans for more detailed pictures from their satellites and often got refusals – even when Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Tel Aviv”.

Following the political tension with Egypt and Syria (the Six-Day War was fought between June 5 to 10, 1967 by Israel and the neighbouring states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria), reconnaissance flights became ever more difficult. The only solution was overhead photography satellite which would bypass the political obstacles and take imagery of points of interests without generating diplomatic problems. The idea was met with great resistance; nevertheless, a feasibility study projects was initiated on the production of satellite launcher, satellites, and telescope cameras by the Israel Aerospace Industries, the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and Electro-Optics industries. The three contractors were asked to complete their study in ten months.

The study was completed by late 1980. While the project received the go-ahead, Israel’s defense industries suffered significant budget shortage following the Iranian Revolution (military cooperation between the two countries ended). In 1982, a new recommendation was submitted to develop an observation satellite. The program included timelines, planning for a ground station, budget estimates, and personnel requirements. The primary goals was to develop a satellite program without relying on any foreign know-how, to allow flexibility and creativity. At the end of 1982, it was decided during a closed-door meeting to establish an Israeli space agency. The decision was taken by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon.

Yuval Ne’eman – The Israeli space program

Yuval Ne’eman was an Israeli theoretical physicist, military scientist, and politician. He was Minister of Science and Development in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yuval Ne’eman was the founder and director of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Tel Aviv University from 1965 to 1972 and president of the Tel Aviv University from 1971 to 1975. He was a strong believer in the importance of outer space research and satellites to Israel’s economic future and security, and thus founded the Israel Space Agency in 1983, which he chaired almost until his death. He also served on the Israel Atomic Energy Commission from 1965 to 1984. He was described as “one of the most colourful figures of modern science”.

The Israel Space Agency – The Israeli space program

The Israeli Space Agency originated from a university-based research project from the Tel-Aviv University in the early 1960s. The Agency especially supports scientific research and development with real, economic potential such as the development of unique and innovative technologies. In addition, the Agency operates on the premise that all space related activities contribute to the Israeli economy, to the country’s international standing and also benefit its citizens in terms of agriculture, communications, monitoring of environmental pollution and research.

The Israel Space Agency’s goals are many and diverse. They include expanding cooperation and reciprocal relationships with various countries in the field of space, promoting infrastructure research studies in the academic sector and research institutes, investing in start-ups developing components for the Israeli and international space industry, the development and construction of satellites for civilian purposes and supporting the development of unique and innovative space technologies. The Agency also cultivates a cadre of future scientists, through space education and community projects, who will work in the field of space research in the future. In general, the Agency seeks to increase Israel’s relative lead in this field and position the country amongst the leading nations involved in space research and its exploitation.

Shavit 2

Shavit 2 was the first Israeli sounding rocket, launched on July 5, 1961 for meteorological research. The weight of Shavit 2 was two hundred and fifty kilograms and its height was almost four meters. The rocket achieved an altitude of eighty kilometres. The Shavit 2 sounding rocket is distinct from the later Shavit space launch vehicle.

Shavit

Shavit, which means in Hebrew “comet” (שביט), is a small lift launch vehicle produced by Israel from 1982 onwards, to launch satellites into low Earth orbit. It was first launched on September 19, 1988, making Israel the eighth nation to have an orbital launch capability, after the USSR, the United States of America, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China, and India.

The Shavit project is believed to have been an offshoot development, resulting from Israel’s Jericho (a general designation given to a loosely related family of deployed ballistic missiles developed by Israel from the 1960s forward) nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile program. Shavit rockets are launched from Palmachim Airbase by the Israel Space Agency into highly retrograde orbits over the Mediterranean Sea to prevent debris coming down in populated areas and also to avoid flying over nations hostile to Israel to the east. This results in a lower payload-to-orbit than east-directed launches would allow. The launcher consists of three stages powered by solid-fuel rocket motors, with an optional liquid-fuel fourth stage, and is manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries.

The Republic of South Africa produced and tested a licensed version in cooperation with Israel called the RSA-3 in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to produce a domestic satellite launch vehicle and ballistic missile. The South African program was closed in 1994.

Ofeq – The Israeli space program

Israel’s first step into space was a launch of a simple Ofeq-1 satellite on September 19, 1988, with the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) leading the effort as the prime contractor. The spin-stabilized Ofeq-1 was deployed in a low Earth orbit with perigee two hundred and fifty kilometres and apogee one thousand one hundred and fifty kilometres. The satellite re-entered the atmosphere on January 14, 1989.

Ofeq, which means in Hebrew “horizon” (אופק), is the designation of a series of Israeli reconnaissance satellites first launched in 1988. Most Ofeq satellites have been carried on top of Shavit rockets from Palmachim Airbase in Israel, on the Mediterranean coast. Both the satellites and the launchers were designed and manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries. While exact technical details and capabilities are classified, it is assumed that the Ofeq satellites have ultraviolet and visible imaging sensors, and an effective operational lifespan of one to three years. Some early reports stated that the reconnaissance capabilities were allowing “reading license plates in Baghdad”.

Most non-Israeli satellites are launched eastward to gain a boost from the Earth’s rotational speed. However, Ofeq satellites are launched westward (retrograde orbit) over the Mediterranean to avoid flying over, and dropping spent rocket stages over, populated areas in Israel and neighbouring Arab countries.

The Palmachim Airbase – The Israeli space program

The Palmachim Airbase is an Israeli military facility and spaceport located near the cities of Rishon LeZion and Yavne on the Mediterranean coast. It is named after the nearby Kibbutz Palmachim. Palmachim is used to launch the Shavit space launch vehicle into retrograde orbit by launching over the Mediterranean, acting as Israel’s primary spaceport. This ensures that rocket debris falls into water, and that the rocket does not fire over regional neighbouring countries near Israel that could use the technology.

Retrograde and prograde motion

Typically, spacecraft are launched in the eastern direction (from left to right, if one looks at a map). Therefore, most satellites move around the Earth in the same general direction as the Earth rotates. Such orbits are called prograde. The rotation of our planet is not negligible and provides significant help for launching satellites. One gets “for free” a significant velocity (four hundred and sixty five meters per second at the equator) when launching a satellite due east. Possible launch directions are usually restricted by safety considerations, to prevent first rocket stages, or malfunctioning rocket, from falling on populated areas. In Israel’s case, political considerations do not allow space launches in the eastern direction. Therefore, the country has to launch satellites over the Mediterranean Sea in the western direction, against the Earth’s rotation. Such orbits are called retrograde. Launch in low-inclination retrograde orbits is highly unfavourable and requires significantly larger rockets than for similar eastward launches.

Amos

Amos is a series of Israeli communications satellites. All Amos satellites are operated by Spacecom, an Israeli communications satellite operator in the Middle East, European Union and North America headquartered in the city of Ramat Gan, Israel. The six different Amos satellites have used five different launch vehicles: Soyuz, Zenit, Proton, Ariane and Falcon 9; and three different launch sites: the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana and Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Beresheet – The Israeli space program

Will Israel be the fourth country to join the Moon after the United States of America, Russia and China? Nothing is done yet, but the deal seems pretty good. It is already a small victory: Thursday, February 21 in Cape Canaveral (Florida), a rocket Falcon 9 of the private company SpaceX took off with on board an Israeli probe. A few tens of minutes later, the thrower released the probe Beresheet (which means in Hebrew “At the beginning” – בראשית, first word of the Torah) which began a seven-week trip to the Moon. Once arrived at the destination, the craft will seek to land on our natural satellite, and would then make Israel the fourth nation to have achieved a Moon landing. This performance is all the more remarkable as it is a private initiative led by the non-profit organization SpaceIL with the support of the businessman Morris Kahn, a South African-born Israeli billionaire entrepreneur. Half an hour after the launch, more than seven hundred and fifty kilometres above Africa and at a speed of thirty-five thousand kilometres per hour, the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket deployed Beresheet.

The launch was followed live from Israel, in the middle of the night, by many engineers and supporters of the mission, and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who waved Israeli flags from the control centre of Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel’s prime aerospace and aviation manufacturer, producing aerial and astronautic systems for both military and civilian usage. The main mission of Beresheet is indeed to Moon land; the probe, which carries children’s drawings, songs and images as well as memories of a Holocaust survivor and even a Bible, is not planned to work more than a few days on our natural satellite. The capsule will be left on the Moon as a testimony for future generations. “We are entering history and are proud to belong to a group that has dreamed and fulfilled the vision shared by many countries in the world but so far only three of them have accomplished”, said the president of SpaceIL. So far, only Russia, the United States of America and China have sent space objects on the Moon. Only twelve American astronauts have walked on the lunar ground between 1969 and 1972.

The country had already launched satellites before, but Beresheet is Israel’s first long-range spacecraft. This mission costed only one hundred million dollars, very little for this type of experience: “it is the cheapest gear to attempt such a mission”. International partners also took part in the project: a Swedish company for managing communications with Beresheet, and even NASA, which equipped the probe with a laser retroreflector to conduct space navigation tests. In a little less than two months, Beresheet should Moon land.

The renewed interest in the Moon, sometimes called the “eighth continent” of the Earth, is global and the year 2019 promises to be particularly busy. India hopes to become the fifth lunar country in the spring with its Chandrayaan-2 mission, which will include a mobile robot. Japan also plans to send a small lunar lander to study a volcanic area, called SLIM, short for Smart Lander for Investigating Moon, a candidate for the SPRINT-C (Small scientific satellite Platform for Rapid INvestigation and Test-C) mission. The lander would be one hundred and twenty kilograms and is proposed to be launched on an Epsilon advanced rocket from the Kagoshima Prefecture in late 2019.

As for the Americans, the return to the Moon is now the official policy of NASA, according to the guidelines of President Donald Trump in 2017. “This time, when we go back to the Moon, we will stay there” recently said NASA boss Jim Bridenstine. To achieve this, the U.S. Space Agency is changing its model and no longer wants to design the missions itself. NASA wants to work with private companies and has put financial incentives on the table to reward the companies that will be ready the fastest.