IAI sees growing demand for high-resolution imaging smallsats

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WASHINGTON — After the successful launch of two small imaging satellites last month, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is optimistic that it will find additional customers for satellites that it argues can match the performance of much larger spacecraft.

IAI was the manufacturer of Optsat-3000, a high-resolution optical imaging satellite built for the Italian Ministry of Defense; and VENµS, an Earth observation spacecraft that is a joint mission of the Israeli Space Agency and the French space agency CNES. Both spacecraft launched on a Vega rocket Aug. 1 and are working well, with the first images from VENµS released in late August.

In a recent interview, Opher Doron, general manager of space division of IAI, said his company is seeing growing interest in small satellites such as these — Optsat-3000 weighed 368 kilograms at launch and VENµS 264 kilograms — because of the capabilities they offer at a relatively low price.

“We’re finally seeing the market awakening to this class of satellite that can provide extremely high resolution with very good collection capabilities,” he said. “It’s a unique proposition, with nothing at this price point.”

IAI has not disclosed the price of this class of satellite, but said the interest IAI is seeing in it is coming from both governments and companies. “Some are governments, and some are commercial companies that want to provide services to governments,” he said, adding he was seeing less purely commercial interest in high-resolution imagery.

Doron said that IAI’s selling point for these satellites was the high performance they offered, similar to larger high-end imaging satellites, such as images with a resolution of several tens of centimeters. “Yes, you can get cheaper satellites,” he said, “but they are far lower in performance.”

IAI is also working on nanosatellite-class spacecraft, including a project with an Israeli university, Technion, to study formation flying of such spacecraft. The avionics for those small satellites will also be tested on a small lunar lander being built at IAI for SpaceIL, one of the finalists in the Google Lunar X Prize.

“They don’t have much use for imaging,” Doron said of such satellites, “but there’s a variety of other things that they can do.” He didn’t elaborate on those applications.

Those future uses of nanosatellites, he said, would fit into a company’s “small is beautiful” philosophy towards small satellites in general. “We don’t think small means bringing lousy data,” he said. “Small means bringing good data, selecting sensors accordingly, and working in conjunction with several other satellites.”

IAI’s optimism about small satellites in low Earth orbit is not matched by the state of the company’s business for geostationary orbit communications satellites. The company is still reeling from the loss of the Amos-6 satellite, built for Israeli operator Spacecom, on a Falcon 9 a year ago.

“We are working together with Spacecom and the government to define what the next satellite will look like, and whether it will be Israeli-built or not,” he said. “The government needs to make a decision, and I hope that they make it soon.”

Doron said that if the government did approve a plan for what’s known as Amos-8, IAI would be ready to build it. “If not, there’s not much room for a small company without much government support,” he said of IAI’s position in the overall communications satellite manufacturing business.