When you think of spacefaring nations, Israel probably does not come to mind. So when it was announced that the 2015 International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) would be held in Jerusalem, many in the space community scrambled to figure out exactly what this diminutive country has to offer the space community. After attending IAC in October, it is clear that the Israeli aerospace community is a lively and growing marketplace with decades of experience and great potential for growth.

Israel became just the 8th country to launch a spacecraft with its 1988 launch of OFEQ 1, the first in a series of surveillance satellites developed by government-owned corporation Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Israel’s launch vehicle is the Shavit, a three or four stage launcher with payload capacity of 350 kg. Shavit launches into a highly unusual retrograde orbit. As with many elements of Israeli life, retrograde launch is necessitated by the nation’s geographical and security realities: the only direction in which Israel can launch without overflying populated areas or hostile nations is west, over the Mediterranean Sea. This reality has placed constraints on Israel’s ability to launch high mass payloads, so the nation has become something of an expert in low mass designs and miniaturization, two specialties that are in high demand in today’s nanosatellite era.

In 2013, Israel decided to place new focus on civilian space missions with a dramatic increase in funding to the civilian Israel Space Agency (ISA) from the equivalent of a few million US dollars up to $48 million.  The agency quickly put those dollars to work in the form of collaborative Earth observation missions including VENμS, a vegetation monitoring satellite jointly developed with CNES; SHALOM, a hyperspectral satellite developed with ASI; and SAMSON, a formation-flying nanosatellite experiment. ISA also supports the non-governmental SpaceIL organization which recently became the first Google Lunar XPrize team to produce a verified launch contract and participates in ESA’s JUICE Jupiter mission.

SpaceIL lunar lander

A mockup of SpaceIL’s lunar lander on display at IAC2015 (Credits: Merryl Azriel).

Israeli Aerospace Companies to Know

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is a government-owned corporation and Israel’s prime contractor for both military and civilian aerospace and aviation. IAI manufactures the Amos communication, Ofeq surveillance, and Eros observation satellite series as well as the Shavit launch vehicle.

RAFAEL is primarily a military contractor but provides propulsion and reaction control systems for civilian satellites as well.

Elbit Systems provides electro-optics and satellite communication platforms.

Spacecom operates the AMOS communication satellite fleet.

Gilat Satcom operates a VSAT network across the Middle East and provides satellite internet service using AMOS.

SpaceIL is an Israeli team competing in the Google Lunar XPrize competition. One of 16 remaining teams, SpaceIL recently became the first to secure a launch vehicle for their lunar probe.

SpacePharma designs miniature lab modules for conducting remote chemical and biological experiments on nanosatellites in microgravity. Their mission is to make it cheaper, easier, and faster to field a microgravity experiment by bypassing the International Space Station.

SpacePharma lab

SpacePharma’s custom designed lab module on display at IAC2015 (Credits: Merryl Azriel).

I sat down with ISA’s Chairman, Major General (Ret.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, to talk about the significance of hosting IAC in Jerusalem, the nature of technological solutions to political problems, and Israel’s future in crewed spaceflight.


ISA Chairman Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel

Israel Space Agency Chairman Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel Credits: Merryl Azriel).

“Space projects are very complicated,” Ben-Israel began when I asked him about the long term benefits of Israel hosting IAC. “Israel is in the Middle East, far away from the big space centers in the world. A convention like this is a good opportunity to present Israeli capabilities and to bring here delegates from industries that will meet our Israeli industries. I met this week more heads of agencies around the world than I can do in two years.”

The ability to bring together space actors produced some immediate results, with new agreements launched between Israel Space Agency and NASA, CNES, and ASI, all announced during the IAC convention. But beyond local interests, Ben-Israel highlighted the role of international collaboration throughout the space world.

“Space is almost, I would say, the number one activity in the world today in promoting international cooperation,” he says. “There is an International Space Station, we don’t have international something else. And American astronauts are flying there using Russian vehicles, Soyuz.” And while there is tension between America and Russia concerning Ukraine and Syria, “in space they work together, they train together, and at the end American astronauts are taken to the International Space Station by Russian Soyuz. It’s like a dream, but it happens in space.”


The Host Plenary at IAC2015 dove into Israel's hyperspectral contributions to the VENμS, a joint CNES-ISA mission

Politics and Technological Solutions

In Israel, political realities are never far away. This was on display during IAC overtly as the surrounding city was rocked by some of the worst violence to erupt in recent years and more subtly within the convention center itself as space agencies and nationalities tried to negotiate their inborn love of space and their nations’ political positions. During the opening day’s Heads of Agencies panel, CNSA administrator Xu Dazhe pointedly commented that “China supports international cooperation in all areas of space…those of us around this table must find ways to abandon prejudice” and NASA administrator Charles Bolden responded with a plea to his own country: “If we don’t work with China, we’ll be on the outside looking in.”

Ben-Israel also sees the hand of politics at play in some of the most intractable challenges in space: space debris, environmental protection, and cyber security. “Every time you have some problem that you try to solve with technology, the problems are never technological. The problems usually are what we call interdisciplinary. You have to take into account psychology, sometimes of individuals sometimes of societies. You have to take into account legal problems. You have to take into account business calculations. You have to take into account so many other things that are not really technological.” He notes that without understanding the true roots of these problems, technological solutions are unlikely to succeed. “[For] space it’s not enough to be good technology. We have good technologies, in light weight high performance satellites, we are perhaps the best in the world. All these wonderful technologies solve problems which are not really technological, are more human.”

Recently, these non-technological factors were in the limelight in a highly politicized maneuver in the United Nations. Israel has a lot of expertise to contribute to space arenas such as UN COPUOUS discussions on an international code of conduct, including cyber security measures. However, until recently, Israel was unable to directly participate in UN COPUOUS talks because their membership was blocked. At Syria’s instigation, a simple administrative question for the committee went to a full blown General Assembly vote. On October 30, the UN approved Israel’s inclusion as a COPUOUS member, with 21 countries abstaining. “International problems have this nature,” says Ben-Israel. “It’s not the problem that really interests them, it’s the political problems.”

One area where international elements are helping solve technological problems is in Tallinn, Estonia, commonly recognized as the first target of a cyberwarfare attack. As a result, Estonia became a leader in cyber security technology and paved the way for its namesake, the Tallinn Manual. “It’s [an] informal manual,” says Ben-Israel, “not accepted as guide formally by any country, but it is a good one. A lot of experts coming from different countries every year, trying to determine international norms, standards, code of behavior, and things like this.” While talks at COPUOUS on an international code of conduct move haltingly forward, the Tallinn Manual and the process of annual discussions around it provide a means for practitioners to secure space assets from at least one type of hazard.


Watch the Head of Agencies Plenary from IAC2015

Cyber Space

Ben-Israel wears several hats beyond his role as ISA Chairman. “On a national level I have two titles. One is Chairman of Israeli Space Agency and the other one is Chairman of Israeli Research and Development Council. I am the head of the cyber research center of Tel Aviv University. This is a big center, something like 250 researchers, even in global terms it’s big.”

Ben-Israel’s approach to cyber research is a unique one that may hold lessons for the rapid-turn world of space entrepreneurship and the ever-popular public-private partnership. “Technology in this area is changing so fast that there is no way to bring every five years some experts to ask them what should be the policy because before they finish the report, it’s already changed. And therefore we need to build what we call an ecosystem, a kind of meeting system which will react automatically in a way and adapt itself automatically to the changes in technology. And then the question is how do you build such an ecosystem? And we came to the conclusion that you should [incorporate] three different elements. One is, of course, the academy; second one, naturally, is the industry; and the third one, which is not so trivial, is government.” The  idea is to build connections between the three with each one benefitting from helping the others. “I cannot go to the academia and tell them, ok you help the industry. Professors don’t get orders from anyone, this is the nature of it. You have to build mechanisms that each element would like to feed the other two elements, that it will be benefitted. And of course you need some function that will take care of the whole system, that will be the conductor of the orchestra.”

When it comes to cyber space in space, Ben-Israel thinks the dangers haven’t really been full recognized yet. “This is one of the problems people really don’t understand. They speak about cyber space, they don’t really understand what it is. Until a few years ago, no one even spoke about cyber space. Usually those who spoke about it belonged either to intelligence services or defense establishments, but not in the market. Now, everyone’s speaking about it, mainly because of the exposure of the Stuxnet worm in 2010. Centrifuges in the Iranian enrichment facilities were destroyed, people started to understand that this virtual cyber concept may cause physical damage.” He points out that when most people think of cyber threats, they think about data theft, which is only the tip of the iceberg. “If you take, for example, the Iranian case, nothing happened to the information stored on the computers of the Iranians. The damage was not damage to bits stored in the computer but it was collapse, physical collapse of certain machines. Secondly, people think that if they don’t connect the computer to the network, then they are protected, safe, which is also wrong because the Iranian facility was not connected to any network. Now, you need only one minute of reflection to realize there is nothing like an isolated, really isolated, computer. Computers always must have means of input. There is nothing like an isolated computer.”


Talk on Cyber Security in International Relations from the 4th Annual Cyber Security Conference at Tel Aviv University

And when it comes to cyber threat targets, traditional personal computers and laptops are in the minority. Stuxnet did not attack computers as such, but centrifuge controllers run on computer chips. “We are surrounded by computers, there are more computers than human beings. And we don’t realize that each one of them, because it is a computer, can be hacked and be used or abused by bad guys for causing some damage.”

“I bought a new refrigerator, two weeks ago, a normal, Korean LG refrigerator. In case of some malfunction, the technician told my wife, take your iPhone, you put it close to this black dot. The refrigerator will use your phone automatically to send to the maintenance center some 20 miles from my house the details of the problem. The technician will come with the right spare parts.” While such technology delivers convenience and efficiency, it also introduces ever more opportunities for infiltrators. “We don’t realize usually that by this we become dependent on those machines and it creates a weak point. Someone can use this dependence in order to cause damage, some bad guys. Living in Israel, in Jerusalem, I can tell you there will always be bad guys. And one day, one of them will think about the possibility and try to use this highly connected network of computers for shutting off the electricity, for disabling satellites.

“It’s very easy, very easy to hack into all these chips and to cause damage. Unless you protect it. People say cyber space because it’s a new dimension so they would like to say where it is, this damage, so: cyber space. But really there is a connection between space and cyber security.

“On the opening day [of IAC], we had a panel of heads of agencies. They asked what would happen in 2030. I said in 2030 there will be still a convention like this with heads of space agencies speaking about space. I hope it will be possible in 2030 – and it will not be possible if we will not take care of this cyber threat.

Israel’s Astronaut

When in Israel, discussions of space almost always begin or end with reference to Ilan Ramon. Israel’s only astronaut, Ramon died in the fated STS-107 Columbia disaster in 2003. I asked Ben-Israel why Ramon remains so central to Israeli space. “He became a kind of national symbol,” he explains, pointing out that as Israel’s only astronaut to-date, Ramon embodies the pioneering spirit that inspires Israelis to reach towards space. “Kids are attracted to three things. Number one was space, especially being an astronaut. The second one was robotics. And the third one, don’t ask me why, dinosaurs. My dream is to build a robot in a shape of dinosaurs and to land it on the Moon. We can get the imagination of all the kids of the world! Space is a very good tool for attracting kids to take more seriously science and mathematics. And then, one day, they will go to universities and be scientists and will develop space technologies for their own.”

While Ramon is the only homegrown astronauts for Israeli kids to look up to now, he may soon have company. ISA has been in talks with the United States, Russia, and China about flying an Israeli to space. “I think it will be practical somewhere around 2019-2020,” says Ben-Israel. “In our terms, it’s very soon.”


Ilan Ramon's last interview before he launched on STS-107

About the author

Merryl Azriel

Merryl Azriel

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Having wandered into professional writing and editing after a decade in engineering, science, and management, Merryl now enjoys reintegrating the dichotomy by bringing space technology and policy within reach of an interested public. After three years as Space Safety Magazine’s Managing Editor, Merryl semi-retired to Visiting Contributor and manager of the campaign to bring the International Space Station collaboration to the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. She keeps her pencil sharp as Proposal Manager for U.S. government contractor CSRA.