Israeli Firm Seeks Partners for Microsatellite Imaging System

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TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s Defense Ministry has approved marketing efforts to secure international partners for Project LiteSat, a proposed constellation of microsatellites for collecting high-resolution imagery under development at the state-owned Rafael Armament Development Authority.

The project envisions a single ground launch of multiple 100-kilogram satellites and supporting ground systems optimized for tactical responsive space operations.

Since successful completion of a LiteSat system design review earlier this year, Rafael is seeking to enter into negotiations with prospective international partners. An overview of LiteSat’s tactical targeting capabilities was presented in October at the 62nd annual International Astronautical Congress in Capetown, South Africa.

Rafael’s current concept calls for three LiteSats to be launched aboard Israel’s Shavit rocket, although company executives say additional satellites can be added to a larger launcher secured by prospective partners.

LiteSat was initially planned as the flagship product line of MicroSat Israel, a proposed joint venture between Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. But after more than five years of protracted government review and unsuccessful attempts to activate the joint venture, Rafael is trying to regain lost momentum in its unilateral push toward full-scale development.

The self-funded project is now scheduled for preliminary design review early next year, after which Rafael will intensify efforts to put together a consortium of prospective international and domestic partners. Company executives estimate it will take three years following the design review to ready the first microsatellite constellation for launch.

Once deployed at altitudes of 300 to 350 kilometers, the orbiting satellites form an instant constellation capable of capturing submeter imagery of targets of interest with greater frequency than a single spy satellite, space experts and company sources here say.

“We’re talking very high performance relative to investment. It’s a huge added value,” said Yaaqov Sharony, microsatellite system programs manager at Rafael Space Systems Directorate.

In a Nov. 1 interview, Sharony declined to provide cost estimates. He said the high revisit rate of the envisioned constellation — each satellite will carry a 15-kilogram imaging payload and is designed for a minimum five-year lifespan — matches the performance of a costlier, single satellite weighing 300 to 400 kilograms.

In simulations, Rafael engineers and mission planners studied multiple deployment options for obtaining maximum coverage at minimum cost. Allowing for slight variations depending on geographic areas of interest, the LiteSat team found that two constellations — a total of six microsatellites — would revisit target areas four times a day. For hourly revisit time, four separate constellation launches — a total of 12 microsatellites — would be needed.

The firm’s LiteSat presentation in Capetown emphasized the high revisit time, which allows the system to identify targets, analyze changes within the imaging footprint and provide precise coordinates for destroying critical targets such as mobile, long-range ballistic missiles.

Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, said the LiteSat system would offer true responsive capabilities. “The advantage of deploying multiple satellites in a single launch creates an instant constellation with short revisit time. … With regard to military use of space, it would significantly shorten the sensor-to-shooter loop,” he said.

Inbar noted that funding remains a major obstacle in space programs around the world and especially in Israel. “If a suitable international partner will invest in the project, it will ease Israel’s way to enjoying its fruits. But it might be easier to commercialize the satellite and to market it worldwide, after an in situ demonstration, meaning launching and proving LiteSat’s capabilities in orbit,” Inbar said.

Sharony said LiteSat draws on Rafael’s experience in developing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and missiles. The microsatellite’s cigar-shaped design features a small radar cross section characteristic of Rafael’s missiles while the miniaturized payload is adapted from optics developed for the firm’s missile seekers and other electo-optic systems.

As for mission management and exploitation and enhancement of LiteSat imagery, supporting ground stations will employ technology developed for Rafael systems now used to support aerial reconnaissance from fixed and unmanned aircraft.

If image processing reveals new areas of interest or detects a shift in location of suspected targets, ground operators can alter LiteSat’s orbiting position. “Via propulsion, the ground station can change the position of every satellite in its orbit,” Sharony said.

Such operational flexibility, coupled with LiteSat’s high revisit rate and high-performance imaging exploitation, can also support a range of civilian missions, he said.

According to technical specifications provided by Rafael, LiteSat’s footprint measures thousands of square kilometers, with each satellite payload designed to operate in spot, synchronous strip or mosaic mode. From an altitude of 350 kilometers, each LiteSat will capture images capable of distinguishing ground objects measuring less than 1 meter across.

Sharony said Rafael already is exploring a follow-on generation of LiteSat employing an electric propulsion system the company is now developing for the French space agency’s Venus vegetation monitoring satellite program. The second-generation electrically powered LiteSat, he said, will allow the constellation to fly at lower altitudes, enabling improved imaging resolution while preserving each satellite’s five-year operational life.

Sharony declined to identify prospective international investors in LiteSat, but noted that the firm is now speaking to potential partners in Latin America, Europe and the Far East. “Some contacts are more advanced than others, but — with the requisite [Ministry of Defense] authorizations — we hope to elevate the level of discussions and move toward our goal of identifying and securing at least one international partner” after the preliminary design review, he said.

Amitzur Rosenfeld, a veteran Israeli industry executive appointed in 2006 to lead the now-defunct MicroSat joint venture, doubted that Rafael could succeed without Israel Aerospace Industries or another major partner in bringing its LiteSat project to fruition.

Rosenfeld retired in May 2010 after an unsuccessful four-year struggle to promote the joint LiteSat project. He estimated that the firm would need $100 million and a decade to ready the initial constellation for launch, an assessment rejected by Rafael executives here.