This week, the “Technion” celebrates its 99th birthday. If, at its inception, they debated whether to teach in Hebrew or German, today they are figuring out how to launch a satellite to space. The IAF website spoke with Professor Ehud Bachar, head of the Space Research Institute at the Technion, concerning what the university is doing in Space research and where the State of Israel finds itself regarding the field of study
Which Satellite projects are on the Technion’s agenda?
“We are the only university in Israel that has built and that intends to continue building satellites. Today we are beginning a nano-satellite program. Nano-satellites are, essentially, small satellites whose main task is technological checking.
Before we build very large satellites with very advanced instrumentation, we check the technology with a small satellite that weighs just a few kilograms. We are going to open a laboratory that will be used to build such satellites. This initiative is unique to the Technion among Israeli universities and is a continuation of the creation of our original satellite, the “TECHSAT2”. Right now we are talking about a project that is still in its planning stages and has yet to have begun being built.
Additionally, students in our space and aeronautics department are doing a final project that deals with the configuration of nano-satellite’s that should be able to identify a source of radiation on the ground, for rescue purposes. The idea is like this: say a man falls from a boat and assume he has a small transmitter the size of a wrist-watch on him. With the help of this transmitter satellites can provide a precise description of his location. Of course we are talking about operations that satellites already do, but I don’t think anyone else is using the satellite like this.
There are other important aspects of Space research that we are dealing with. For example, we have a patent on an engine named Camilla, that we are developing together with the RAFAEL Company. We also have a propulsion laboratory that we use to check electric engines. This is a national infrastructure that the RAFAEL Company also uses to check engines. We also have another great laboratory for various space systems. There we can do a simulation of a group of satellites, that is to say, how satellites work in groups and conduct tasks together autonomously.
We are just beginning to understand the importance of this field. If we can apply the idea of building nano-satellites, I hope that one day we can conduct demonstration missions like that in Space. Today we do everything in the laboratory: we have robots that go around on tables without friction, simulating two dimensional movements in space, and in doing so we are developing the inspection, technology, surveillance and coordination technologies among the satellites. This is a serious technology that has yet to mature which is why we still don’t use it on a routine basis.
There is another worthwhile thing I should remark on, something we sponsorship: the Space IL Group that is representing Israel in the Google “Lunar X Prize” competition. This group is attempting to build a nano-satellite that will reach the moon. Something like this has never been done before. Beyond the fact that the Technion is sponsoring their work, the university is also providing them with technological guidance. It isn’t clear if it will ever be active, but it would be nice if a small Israeli satellite were successful in getting to the moon and sending pictures. We will have a picture of the Israeli flag on the moon”.
What notable collaborations do you have with the defense industries in space?
“Geographically, we are close to the RAFAEL company, with whom we have continuing projects. For example, we are currently building a satellite named Venus. RAFAEL is building for the first time electric motors for the satellite. This type of motor has never been used in Israel. All of the technology centers that for the most part control the motors of the satellites on route are being built by us with RAFAEL and the aircraft industries.
We have another project with RAFAEL in the field of laser communication. Generally, satellites communicate with each other via radio and our project in collaboration deals with developing a small enough laser system, one that can go on a nano-satellite and can pass information from one satellite to another via laser.
This has great potential because the bandwidth is much greater and much more information can be passed with a laser beam. We are now in the final stages of building a ground system and we want to do a ground trial between two of these systems communicating with one another. One day maybe this will be a functional system that we can put on a satellite.
It is necessary to say that our relationship with the industries has always been and remains tight. Beyond the work on propulsion and collaboration with RAFAEL that I mentioned, in the field of optics we are currently collaborating with El-Op, for example, in the field of remote sensing, specifically with regards to photography of the earth from space. At the end of the month there will be an international conference on remote sensing for agriculture, part of which is done from space. The idea is that with the help of satellite photos, we can let farmers know about spots with large water leaks, lack of irrigation or disease”.
Do you have contact with foreign officials in the field of Space research?
“Space is a difficult field because of military issues. It isn’t simple to collaborate with foreign industries because we are generally talking about government industries with security or other orientations. That isn’t to say that we don’t have the motivation, we would be very happy to further develop international connections and we do this wherever possible. For example, we collaborated on the Galileo program: a large European program whose goal is the creation of a satellite infrastructure for ground positioning, just like GPS. GPS is the American system. Israel is a participating member in this consortium, of which our institute had a small portion, for example in planning satellite routes, with very precise control over the route and more.
One of out goals, clearly, is to greaten the collaboration. We are attractive as a place for training for people from overseas, but with regards to legitimate collaborations, we have what to improve. We are working on it”.
Compared to other countries, where does Israel find itself in the field of Space research?
“In terms of ability in relation to size, Israel would be in first place. Nobody launches satellites with higher performance like we do. Israel’s ability to launch is limited. Our need to have westward launches, that is to say against the rotation of the earth, works against us, and dictates very clear size and weight constraints for satellites.
Even with these constraints, I think Israel’s space capabilities are amazing, really unprecedented. Israel’s satellites weigh several hundred kilograms, and in this sense we have no competitors.
On the other hand, make no mistake: size matters. We don’t have the capabilities that the world powers have with regards to size and frequency of launch. We don’t have the ability to compete with the world’s space giants like the ESA or even with the Chinese. But when it comes to maximum performance despite size, I think we are very good.
In general, the mere fact that we have launch capabilities is impressive because if you look at history, the space industry was grown by world powers that had intercontinental missiles. This was the basis upon which began the capability to launch into space. The number of countries in the world that can even get to Space independently is rather small. In this respect we have much to be proud of”.
Where, then, do we have room to improve in the field of Space research?
“If it were possible to improve launch capabilities and there are efforts in that direction, that is always good. However bigger you can go, the better you can achieve higher performance, but Israel has never gone in that direction. Instead, Israel decided to go with being clever. I’ll demonstrate: in optics, the size of the telescope determines your ability to see, but our optics laboratories are working on all kinds of clever things.
One of the ideas we are tossing around is a telescope that can be spread out in Space. You send it to space all folded up and then you open it in Space. This is not something we invented, rather it is something that is talked about a lot in the world. If we can put into practice this kind of technology, we are talking about a breakthrough, because that means that we aren’t limited in the size of the telescope. Despite this, we still are limited by weight and this is also a challenge: building the telescope from light materials, but stable from both mechanical and thermal perspectives. There is no limit to how much you can improve in Space”.