Eyes in the sky

The TecSAR Satellite Eyes in the sky 23 years have passed since “Ofeq 1”, the first Israeli satellite, was launched. But what is in development in the satellite discipline these days? A special tour at the MBT factory of the Aerial Industry, uncovers what the future holds

Lya Shanel | Photography: Yonatan Zalk

In honor of the anniversary of the launch of the “Ofeq 1”, we embarked on a journey to find out what will be the future satellites of the State of Israel. We were accompanied on tour by Mr. Yehiel (Johnny) Shalev, head of the Observation Satellite Division of the Aerial Industry, who described the satellites that are in development and construction, along with those that are ideas not yet materialized.

“Throughout the 23 years that have passed since the launch of the ‘Ofeq 1’, we’ve branched out in three different directions”, says Johnny. “‘Ofeq 1’ was a very simple satellite which’s purpose was to prove to ourselves that we have control of the technological abilities of launching and maneuvering in space. Since then, the plan has progressed to electro-optic observation satellites. In a completely different direction, we developed the communication satellites ‘Amos’ and in a third direction we developed the SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar). These are the satellites seen today”.

The area in which satellites are structured is called a “Combinations Center”, where the real action takes place: building satellites, called “combining”. Constructing a satellite can take up to three years, while working continuously and extremely accurately. The work rooms are isolated, sterile and kept at a steady temperature through every season of the year. In order to enter a robe, a shower cap and nylon shoe covers must be worn-you have been warned.

Coming Soon: Venus

Eyes in the sky

“Project Venus is a joint project with the French Space Agency”, Johnny is quick to explain. “It’s an observation satellite for civilian use, with unique performances. It has a multi-spectral camera with resolution that allows monitoring agricultural fields. And we’re nearing the end of construction”.

Most of the components of the satellite are already in place. The main part of the satellite is of standard design that has already been used for a number of satellites manufactured by the aerial industry. The telescope-the payload-of the satellite will be placed upon the design.

To see everything: TecSAR
The second satellite we observed on our trip is the SAR satellite that is also in relatively advanced developmental stages. The main advantage of SAR satellites is that they receive images using radars, making them independent from the weather on planet earth to receive images and transfer accurate information. A black “umbrella” is visible on the top part of the satellite-that is the antenna, which’s rods will extend once the satellite is placed in space.

The Giant: Amos 4

Eyes in the sky

The largest satellite in the combination room is the “Amos 4”. The size of the commercial communication satellite is double that of the other satellites in the room. Its gas tank alone, one of two that it will include at the end of construction, is the size of the “Venus” satellite in its entirety.
“‘Amos 4’ is the largest communication satellite we’ve manufactured yet”, says Mr. Shalev. “It’s in an advanced stage of construction at this point and has abilities its predecessors hadn’t had: The abilities of a satellite are measured by the number of transponders it has. The ‘Amos 4’ has a larger number than the previous generations. Moreover, the number of antennas will rise and so will its ability to adjust them in accordance with commercial need”.
The advanced satellite is expected to weigh around 4,300 kilograms at the time of its launch, making it the heaviest satellite in development in the aerial industry, which usually specializes in small, light satellites.

A Third Generation: OpSat 3000

Eyes in the sky

The most interesting satellite in the room is the OpSat 3000, an observation satellite that is now in the beginning of the construction process. “It’s a new generation of observation satellites, the continuation of the ‘Ofeq’ plan”, says our tour guide proudly. “In fact, all electro-optic observation satellites that are in orbit right now, ‘Ofeq’ 5, 7, 9 and EROS, are of the second generation. The third generation is the OpSat 3000, a satellite with improved performance in contrast to the previous generation: It’s based on technologies we developed here, new optic and control systems so the satellite will bring more accurate images, in higher resolutions than its predecessors”.
The new satellite (a model of which is pictured) will have a telescope with a larger diameter than the ‘Ofeq’ 9’s, which will allow it to take pictures at a higher resolution. What about color photos? Johnny refuses to commit. “The OpSat 3000 is planned to have a color telescope, but when it will first be launched it won’t have that ability”.

Small yet Sophisticated: The Nano-Satellite

Eyes in the sky

“We’ve recently entered the field of small satellites, micro and nano satellites. A micro-satellite can be used for many purposes, depending on the payload attached to it-according to the client’s request”, explains Mr. Shalev when we pause in front of a colorful little box. “Additionally we have the nano-satellite, (pictured) that weighs only several kilograms. It’s different from anything we’ve done until now and is based on the perception that instead of accomplishing a mission using one large satellite, we can accomplish it using a number of small ones”.
The advantage of the nano-satellites is their cheap manufacturing cost, along with the particularly low launch cost as a result of the minimal weight: less than 10 kilograms.

Examined Thoroughly
The most important part in constructing a satellite, apart from the combination itself, is examining environmental conditions. Seeing as there is no option of instilling changes after launching a satellite, every part of the complex system is examined thoroughly to make sure that it is working perfectly and is able to withstand the pressures placed upon it.

Amongst the devices that can be found in the examination rooms: a giant vacuum stall, five meters in diameter, that makes it possible to test the way the satellite functions in space vacuum. Weight-measuring equipment and some sort of large carousel, that allows turning the satellite and weighing it to check its balance and assure that it doesn’t veer off course. Alongside them, a shaking machine that simulates the shaking experience at launch-time. And finally, an acoustic noise booth, someone standing outside of which during examinations won’t hear a thing.

“The noise made during a launch is the equivalent of several jumbo planes taking off at once”, Mr. Shalev says in explanation of the noise booth, which is nestled behind safeguarded doors half a meter thick, “The noise is so powerful that it has a mechanical effect on the satellite, so we need to make sure that the machinery can withstand it”. Additionally, it’s possible to find ovens that simulate the extreme temperature in space and different models of satellite parts, on which the experiments are conducted.

“The developmental process is of certain risk and is a tremendous financial investment”, says Johnny. “That’s why we build engineered models of all systems and examine them one by one, to make sure that everything works. And it pays off: Until now, we’ve had a perfect record, and every satellite launched and sent into orbit has operated flawlessly and for years longer than planned”.