US-Israel space co-operation agreement strengthens already-strong ties

Washington DC
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President Barack Obama's push to bring space exploration into the diplomatic arena has been boosted by the signing of a formal co-operation pact between NASA and the Israel Space Agency (ISA).

The memorandum of understanding, signed in Washington DC by NASA administrator Charles Bolden and his Israeli counterpart Zvi Kaplan, is the culmination of talks that began in January when Bolden travelled to Israel for the fifth annual international Ilan Ramon Space Conference, named in memory of the Israeli astronaut payload specialist who flew on the ill-fated 2003 Space Shuttle mission STS-107 and was tragically lost, along with his crewmates, when Columbia disintegrated on re-entry.

The main stated intention is to expand the exchange of information and provide inspiration for the next generation of researchers, scientists and engineers. But NASA is particularly interested in Israeli expertise in producing lightweight satellites that can be launched from aircraft.

Israel's history in spaceflight

Israel's history as a spacefaring nation is short but notable, going back to 1988 when a Shavit launcher orbited Ofeq 1, winning it membership of the exclusive club of nations that have launched a self-developed satellite with their own rocket.

According to Israel Space Agency director general Zvi Kaplan, for reasons of its geography, and also of safety, the Israeli space programme has focused its development efforts on very small satellites.

Work is under way on panchromatic satellites for Earth observation and a new synthetic aperture radar satellite capable of taking images in all weather conditions, a development Kaplan holds out as "proof of the viability and the innovative character of the Israeli space industry".

The ISA is engaged in projects with France to jointly develop an Earth observation micro-satellite and ground station, and an electrical propulsion system for satellite manoeuvrability.

And ISA is updating its Tauvex (Tel Aviv University Ultra Violet Experiment) ultra-violet astronomical telescope to be accommodated on India's geosynchronous G Sat-4, for joint operation by Israeli and Indian scientists.

Israeli instrumentation that will be key to mapping Venus, such as hyperspectral sensors and satellite antennas for analysing photographs via radar, will also figure heavily in NASA-ISA co-operation.

Bolden described Israel as one of the USA's stronger space partners, and welcomed the opportunity to develop even greater ties. Venus programmes, he stressed, are definitely an arena for Israeli participation and, he says, more generally NASA will be looking to expand "co-operation in additional applied subjects in space research and the development of integration technologies".

Partnership with the USA on range and launch safety will be valuable to Israel as it expands launch capability with major upgrades to its Palmachim air force base and missile range, where the Israeli air force is upgrading its missile test range to turn it into the country's primary space centre, with launch facilities for different types of missiles and rockets. The upgrade of the base is scheduled to be completed in 2011.

A new central command centre has been built and a new Elta phased-array long-range track radar has been installed. Although the central Israel site is not ideal - the location of the base forces Israel to launch its satellites in a western trajectory rather than to the east to gain the Earth's velocity - the air force is making it work.

Before every launch the air force and navy clear a "secure area" in the Mediterranean so that in case of a malfunction, no-one would be hurt by falling debris. The launch system includes a built-in, fully automatic self-destruct system that is engaged if the missile veers from its planned trajectory, and a hand-picked safety officer mans the "red button" for every satellite launch.

A pier in the sea is also being considered to compensate for the range's size. "We don't have another location for the space centre so we will have to be creative," the range commander says.

NASA and the Israeli agency also intend to work bilaterally on space geodesy - the measurement from space of Earth's gravitational field, tides, and the movement of its poles and crust - and expand use of the International Space Station for Israeli research and educational experiments.

With plans to extend US participation in the International Space Station to 2020 instead of cutting it off at 2015 as the Bush administration had intended, there is also more time to take other countries' equipment and research projects into orbit.

NASA and the ISA also will collaborate on hydrological observations and joint research, expansion of Israel's participation in the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment educational programme and planetary science through enhanced ISA membership in the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

The agreement with Israel is likely to be the first in what is expected to be a string of overtures to other countries for a stronger alliance in space under the Obama administration's space policy, which makes space more of a diplomatic issue than ever before for the USA.

The June policy statement charged the State Department with working with individual agencies such as NASA on diplomatic efforts to strengthen understanding of, and support for, US national space policies and programmes and to encourage the foreign use of US space capabilities, systems, and services to "strengthen understanding of, and support for, US national space policies and programmes and to encourage the foreign use of US space capabilities, systems, and services".