Israel Shoots for a `Moon'
Civilian space program claims to target economic, not military, goals
TEL AVIV — ISRAEL is aggressively pursuing its space program for economic, not military reasons, said Akiva Bar-nun, coordinator of the Israel Space Agency (ISA), a few days before the country launched its second satellite last month. ``This is not a spy satellite. It has no cameras,'' Dr. Bar-nun said. Although Israel's exports are primarily agricultural, ``you can only sell so many oranges,'' Bar-nun said in an interview. By demonstrating that it can produce and launch reliable satellites, Israel hopes to earn ``a slice'' of the world's $10 billion-a-year space market, he said.
``The Israel Space Agency is purely civilian. We belong to the Ministry of Science and Technology. There is absolutely no military involvement,'' he said.
Nevertheless, the launch came the day after President Saddam Hussein of Iraq threatened to destroy ``half of Israel'' with chemical weapons if that nation attacked Iraq. Shimon Peres, the leader of Israel's Labor Party, told reporters the launch should remind Iraq's president ``that if he wants to deal with Israel, he should look for other means than the military one.''
Bar-nun dismissed attempts to relate the two incidents: ``Everybody knows that in order to launch a satellite, you have to start a sequence of events that takes many days. So one can obviously not react on a daily manner to such things.''
But by demonstrating that it can launch a satellite into Earth orbit, says William Green, professor of international relations at Boston University, Israel has proved that it has perfected its ballistic missile technology.
``The difficulty of putting something in orbit, achieving the orbital velocity of 18,000 miles per hour, essentially means that you have captured the technology to put a ballistic missile anywhere in the world,'' Dr. Green says. ``The satellite technology may be civilian, but the rocket technology has inherent military implications.''
The satellite, named OFEQ 2 and built by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Ltd., weighs 325 pounds and is designed to test IAI's satellite communication and control systems under actual space conditions, according to a statement by the company. It is similar to OFEQ 1, launched on Sept. 19, 1988, which remained in low-Earth orbit for 118 days. Both were placed in orbit with a three-stage rocket, which foreign reports have speculated is a modified version of the Israel's military Jericho II rocket.
Because OFEQ 2 is in a lower orbit than OFEQ 1, it will stay up for a shorter time, Bar-nun said in a telephone interview after the launch. The purpose of the second satellite is to measure the performance of computer and radio communication systems that have recently been completed.
``Space industry is very demanding,'' he said. ``You have to prove that your instruments work under space conditions.'' Only after such demonstrations can Israel hope to sell its space components to other countries.
Another capability that it demonstrates, says Boston University's Green, is that Israel can ``collect overhead intelligence independently of the US.'' Although the OFEQ 2 satellite may not be a spy satellite, such an instrument could be launched with the same rocket system.
Bar-nun says that Israel developed a launch capacity so that it would not have to wait in line for American or European facilities. With space systems, delays mean that ``you have to keep your equipment well protected in the right environment for many months or years, and this costs many millions of dollars.'' For example, he says, Israel had planned to launch a satellite aboard the US space shuttle in 1987, but the launch was postponed after the Challenger accident, resulting in substantial costs to Israel's space program.
AS a small high-technology country that is new to space, Israel has many advantages. Experienced aerospace companies ``tend to use older equipment, that is heavier and more energy consuming, but which has been proven in space and which in many cases they can just take off the shelf,'' he says.
Now the Israel Space Agency is developing a new generation of scientific satellites. These satellites will all use the same multipurpose ``platform,'' says Giora Shaviv, head of the Asher Space Research Institute at the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) in Haifa.
A platform provides the satellite with power, stability, navigation, and ground communications. Although each design costs millions of dollars, platforms have traditionally been custom-designed for each satellite. By using the same design for all its satellites, Dr. Shaviv predicts that Israel will save ``hundreds of millions of dollars'' of research and development costs for each satellite. ``The design of the first was more expensive, but if you send up 10, you save the cost nine times,'' he says.
Each platform will have one or two bays designed to hold an experiment of 20 kilograms (44 pounds). One experiment currently under development is an X-ray telescope designed to look at neutron stars, black holes, and white dwarfs in the far reaches of outer space, Shaviv says. The telescope will be the first of its kind to use an array of small detectors, instead of a single large one, and will be able to see objects twice as faint as other X-ray telescopes, he says.
The X-ray telescope should launch ``in two years if everything works fine, in three years if there are problems,'' Shaviv says.
Such a platform could also be the basis for an intelligence-gathering satellite, says Green. ``It's just a matter of the sensors you put on board, and the Israelis have a lot of experience with airborne sensors. Their reconnaissance aircraft are famous.''
Eventually, Israel hopes to build a set of two communications satellites, named AMOS, that will be able to provide telephone, telex, and direct-broadcast television for the entire country. The satellites will have a total of 12 transponders for ground communication, some of which Israel hopes to lease to other countries, Bar-nun says.
ISA has already contracted with Arianespace, the French and European space concern, to place the AMOS satellites into geostationary orbit, says Bar-nun. Reaching geostationary orbit with an Israeli-made rocket ``would be very nice, but 36,000 kilometers [22,700 miles] high is somewhat much. It took other nations many years to do that,'' he says.