Israel is one of the few nations in its region with a credible space programme.

The country has been launching its own satellites and rockets for decades, but until recently a comprehensive space strategy has been lacking. However, things are changing. Politics, technology and economics all play a role here, but the critical issue is weight. Israel is surrounded by hostile nations which might take exception to airspace intrusions by a rocket, so Israeli rockets must be launched westwards, against the Earth's spin. This costs the rocket 30% of its energy, limiting its payload, orbit and inclination. Hence, Israeli satellites have to be small and light, and are largely limited to less than 500kg (1,100lb) in low-Earth orbit, moving low and fast across the ground.

Israel Aerospace Industries, the largest defence company in Israel, built its first satellite in 1995, and has launched 14 civil and military satellites to date - with 11 still in orbit and functioning, including the military's Ofeq imaging satellite series, the ninth of which was launched in 2010.

Israel rocket launch,

 © Rex Features

Surrounded by hostile nations, Israel must launch its rockets westwards against the Earth's spin

Missile maker Rafael has a programme to build what it hopes will be the world's first commercial micro-satellite. The microsat is designed to carry an electro-optical payload capable of panchromatic, red-green-blue, and near-infrared imaging, with a 92cm (36in) resolution at 400km (220nm) altitude.

The satellite will weigh only about 100kg, roughly a third the weight of comparable satellites on the market, significantly reducing launch costs and allowing constellations of satellites to be launched on a single mission.

"[In] the middle of 2012 we have our preliminary design review," says Yaaqov Sharony, programme manager at Rafael. "Many of the numbers will be changed, some won't, but we're close to final numbers. We are speaking with many customers and nations all over the world because we are seeking co-operation to proceed with the full-scale development." Sharony adds that there are no plans to advance beyond the preliminary design review without a partner to share the technological and financial burdens.

Rafael is also at work on a novel electrical propulsion solution, to be tested by "vegetation and environment monitoring on a new micro-satellite" (VENµS), a co-operation between the Israeli and French national space agencies. Developed atop Israel Aerospace Industries' TECSAR bus - normally used for Israeli military radar satellites - the satellite is scheduled to launch in 2014. Among Rafael's contributions are its Hall-effect electric thrusters.

Meanwhile, Elbit has found its space niche as an optics shop, a complement to its work on terrestrial platforms. The company has built lenses for a variety of Israeli satellites, including the Ofeq spysats and EROS commercial imaging satellites.

The Israeli space industry has had significant success in the past few years and can hold its own in the commercial markets. Its future appears to be a promising one. A range of new spacecraft, satellites and launchers will have Israeli parts: Vega, the new European rocket; IXV, an experimental re-entry vehicle; and ExoMars, a rover that will land on Mars.

Source: Flight International