Israel Aerospace Industries Sharpens its Satellite Export Focus

by

JERUSALEM — Israel Aerospace Industries, in its first satellite export contract, has sold a high-resolution optical imaging spacecraft to an unnamed government, IAI officials said.

Sharpening its export focus, Tel Aviv-based IAI is also introducing an all-electric version of its Amos telecommunications satellite line, Amos-E, which the company said is aimed at a market of customers needing 10-20 transponders to maintain an orbital slot.

“You want to know where I am looking to sell satellites?” Doron said. “Just look at where Airbus has already sold satellites.”

Amos-E, which IAI Space Division General Manager Opher Doron said could be built in three years, is already being bid in one of several satellite competitions IAI has entered with the assistance of Israel’s export-credit agency, ASHRA.

In an interview here during the 66th International Astronautical Congress, Doron and IAI Chief Executive Joseph Weiss said that while ASHRA, the Israel Foreign Trade Risks Insurance Corp. Ltd., is new to the satellite world, it is now fully behind IAI’s satellite export efforts.

“They understand the business now and they are being a real help to us” for both Earth observation and telecommunications satellite exports, Weiss said.

IAI Space Division General Manager Opher Doron Credit: IAI
IAI Space Division General Manager Opher Doron Credit: IAI

Several companies are building all-electric satellites, which offer up to 50-percent weight savings over conventional chemical propellant, allowing customers to add more payload or use the weight savings to secure a less-expensive launch service.

Amos-E employs the same electric-propulsion system used on Amos-6, scheduled for launch in mid-2016 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 Upgrade rocket. But Amos-6 uses chemical propulsion to climb into geostationary orbit position. Then its electric propulsion takes over and maintains the satellite stably in orbit for its 15-year service life.

Amos-E uses electric-propulsion units built by Fakel of Russia for both orbit-raising and satellite station-keeping.

Doron said competitors such as OHB SE of Germany, SSTL of Britain and Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, provide small telecommunications platforms, few are able to offer 4 kilowatts of payload power and 10-20 transponders on a satellite weighing 1,500-2,000 kilograms.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, built the first all-electric satellites outside of Russia. Both have arrived in geostationary orbit and are operating for their owners, Eutelsat of Paris and ABS of Bermuda. The ABS-3A satellite weighed 1,954 kilograms at launch and delivers 7.5 kilowatts of power to the payload.

Doron conceded that IAI, with a history of building no more than one telecommunications satellite every three years, does not have the business scale to match the prices the competition. But with the help of a cost-sharing program with the Israel Space Agency, he said IAI has been able to shave cost from Amos-E.

In Earth observation, IAI has been building radar and optical satellites for years for the Israeli government. The satellites are known for their high resolution and, especially, their low weight.

The Optsat 3000 optical Earth observation satellite being built for the Italian Defense Ministry as part of a trade involving Italian jet trainer aircraft has a 38-centimeter resolution from a 450-kilometer orbit, with an 11-kilometer swath, and weighs 380 kilograms.

IAI’s Tecsar line of radar observation satellites now feature 1-meter resolution from 500 kilometers, a 5-kilometer swath and weighs less than 350 kilograms.

Doron and Weiss both confirmed that IAI is building an Optsat 3000-class satellite for the defense ministry of an unnamed government. It is also building another optical reconnaissance satellite for the Israeli government, and the Eros-C 38-centimeter-resolution satellite for IAI’s Imagesat subsidiary that sells geospatial imagery globally.

“Do you know anyone else who is building four satellites at the same time in the high-resolution Earth observation business?” Doron asked.

In fact Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space are under contract to build four high-resolution optical satellites, two each for the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, although whether actual hardware construction has started is uncertain.

The two companies are also building two optical reconnaissance satellites for the French Defense Ministry.

Doron said the Israeli government recently followed the U.S. government in allowing sharper imagery to be sold commercially. The limit is now set at a 30-centimeter ground sampling distance.

“We’re not quite to 30 centimeters yet, but we’re getting close to the resolution sold by DigitalGlobe,” Doron said, referring to DigitalGlobe Inc. of Westminster, Colorado, which markets satellite imagery but does not build their own satellites. “And we are twice as good as our competitors offering full satellites and much, much less expensive.”

IAI lost a Peruvian government optical imaging satellite contract to Airbus but is bidding on several current and expected competitions.

“You want to know where I am looking to sell satellites?” Doron said. “Just look at where Airbus has already sold satellites.

“Everyone who has a satellite wants another one sooner or later.”

Nations that have issued or are expected to issue bid requests for imaging satellites, optical or radar, include Chile, Thailand and Poland. South Korea has expressed interest in a radar observation satellite and if a formal bid is issued, IAI is likely to bid against Airbus of Germany, OHB SE of Germany and Thales Alenia Space of Italy.