Increase in Funding Fuels High Hopes for Israeli Space

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HERZLIYA, Israel — Israel’s government approved plans for a new civil space program in mid-2010, but it was not until early January that the promised 180 million shekel ($48.3 million) annual budget made its way into Israel Space Agency accounts. For an agency that had squeaked by for decades on just a few million dollars each year, 2013 marks a trajectory of high hopes and new beginnings for Israel’s civil space sector.

When combined with the approximately $80 million invested annually in Israel’s military space sector, government and industry representatives were bullish on the prospects of preserving Israel’s edge in its current niche of small, very high-resolution electro-optical and radar imaging satellites.

Opher Doron, director of the MBT Space Division at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), noted that Israel now has four lightweight submeter electro-optical satellites in orbit as well as capabilities provided by the IAI-built TecSAR synthetic aperture radar satellite.

He said IAI has a backlog of six satellites, which includes a recently signed contract with Italy for a next-generation optical satellite, the Amos-4 and Amos-6 telecommunications satellites, and a joint vegetation and environment monitoring satellite with the French space agency, CNES, which is scheduled for launch in the second half of next year.

“We’ve started the year on a very positive note. I’m optimistic because we now have a funded civilian space program in Israel which will help increase competitiveness and push us in new directions of space exploration,” Doron said.

Menachem Kidron, director general of the Israel Space Agency (ISA), said the new national space program aims to position Israel among the five leading spacefaring nations within a decade. More than half of ISA’s annual budget has been earmarked for international cooperative programs, and about 25 percent will support the local space industry through research and development initiatives.

In the first public presentation of ISA initiatives, Kidron said Israel has proposed working with NASA’s Ames Research Center on an ultraviolet satellite for early detection of supernovas. Israel’s proposed UltraSAT satellite aims to study exploding stars in real time and measure the rate of solar storms.

Proposed cooperative projects with the European Space Agency include a micro-electrical propulsion system for micro satellites in very low Earth orbits, and a new generation of Ruby laser diodes for space missions.

As for ISA-approved local research and development projects, Kidron listed new methods for maximizing satellite communications services; a low-power, high-strength next-generation computer chip for satellites; a chip that provides dedicated very small aperture terminals, or VSAT, consumer broadband capabilities; and the planned launch later this year of the InKlajn, Israel’s first nanosatellite.

Kidron’s Jan. 30 presentation followed an overview by Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, who offered a detailed account of investment priorities for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and its $2 billion annual budget. When asked about the vast differences between Israeli and Japanese funding levels, Kidron opted to focus on a glass half-full.

“With an annual budget of 180 million shekels, we’re alive and breathing. It’s not much, but it’s not bad … and it’s much better than what we had for a long time,” he said.