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Israel Conquers Space
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Israel Conquers Space
By Shlomo Maital

Prof. Shlomo Maital
Look up at the night sky. Amidst the stars is a small satellite you cannot see, circling the earth every 90 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) who lead in both military and civilian space technology. How this happened conveys important lessons.

The Israel Space Agency was founded in 1982. In 1984, Moshe Arens, then minister of defense, instructed Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) to join with other Israeli companies to design and build satellites and a rocket powerful enough to launch them. Arens, who studied engineering at MIT and Caltech, was highly qualified to make this decision. After a six-year stint at Technion, he spent nine years as deputy head of IAI.

Israel became the eighth nation in the world to launch a satellite. It was called Ofek 1 (‘Horizon 1’ in Hebrew), weighed 155.5 kg (343 lbs), and like many of Israel’s achievements, it was done the hard way. Every other nation’s satellites, without exception, are launched from west to east — thus using the slingshot effect of the earth, helping rockets gain the speed needed to launch satellites into orbit. For Israel, this 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. Necessity has spurred invention. With tiny resources and major constraints, Israel has become a world leader in miniaturizing satellites, simply because it had to.

For Israel, space has more than defense implications. It is a vital civilian industry. The global space market amounts to a huge $250 b. annually. Israel’s goal is to grab just over 3 percent of it, or some $8 b., within a few years. It has already made a good start. Geosynchronous Israeli civilian satellites already offer TV, phone and Internet communication channels all over the world.

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 others in designing, building and launching military and civilian satellites and selling their services.

According to Dr Daphne Getz, a researcher associate at Technion’s S. Neaman Institute whose team interviewed a wide range of Israeli space experts, “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,” is 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 September 1962: “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.

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 George W. Bush in 2006 to end the space shuttle project.

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 Technion-built Gurwin TechSat II (named after the U.S. textile magnate and philanthropist Joe Gurwin) had thin-film solar cells and was launched successfully on July 10, 1998. It weighed 48 kg (106 lbs) 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 microsatellites, falling silent only in April 2010. Like America’s moon shot, TechSat fired the imagination of young Israelis.

For Israel’s space efforts, the future is bright. According to Zvi Kaplan, director general of the Israel Space Agency, Israel’s first “nano satellite”—the Incline—will soon be launched. Weighing in at a featherweight 12 kg (26 lbs), it will attract much interest, as many nations face shrinking government budgets and need to do more with less money.

“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.

Prof. Emeritus Shlomo Maital is senior research associate, S. Neaman Institute, Technion. This article is abridged from Marketplace, Jerusalem Report, Nov. 9/2010 Issue #18.
© 2011 Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Division of Public Affairs and Resource Development
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