LE BOURGET, France — The Sept. 1 destruction of the Amos-6 telecommunications satellite in a SpaceX Falcon 9 on-pad explosion may have been the wake-up call the Israeli government needed to secure a future for its domestic satellite industry, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Chief Executive Joseph Weiss said.
In a June 20 interview here at the Paris Air Show, Weiss said a new Israeli government policy — still not confirmed — is in the making that would assure the production of a telecommunications satellite every three or four years.
The satellites would be used by Israel’s Spacecom satellite fleet operator, by the Israeli government and by commercial customers IAI would find in the global market. While not sufficient for many satellite bulders, that production cadence would be enough to keep IAI in the telecommunications satellite business, he said.
Amos-8 a test case
An early indication of government policy may be with Spacecom’s planned Amos-8 satellite. Weiss said the government has indicated that the spacecraft may insist that Spacecom, a commercial operator, choose IAI as the builder by providing sufficient incentives to do so.
Spacecom’s next satellite, Amos-17, is under construction by Boeing Satellite Systems International of California.
Spacecom’s IAI-built Amos-6 was destroyed Sept. 1 when its Falcon 9 rocket, on the launch pad to prepare for a static firing. The wisdom of placing a satellite on the rocket for the test firing, which saves time and money in the launch-preparation process, has been much debated in the industry since the explosion.
It was IAI, and not Spacecom, that carried the insurance policy. Spacecom’s policy would be triggered on intentional ignition of the rocket in a launch attempt.
Weiss said IAI understood the difficulties on Spacecom imposed by the failure and that IAI paid Spacecom its share of the insurance proceeds.
Again because it was not a launch attempt, the explosion was not considered a launch failure, meaning Spacecom did not collect an insurance payments under its launch-plus-one-year policy.
Industry officials said it also meant that Spacecom did not recover its $50 million in payments to SpaceX.
Spacecom was an early customer for SpaceX with Amos-6, and paid about $50 million for the launch. Since then, SpaceX prices have risen with the company’s new-version Falcon 9 Full Thrust version, and are now around $65 million for a standard telecommunications satellite heading to geostationary-transfer orbit.
Despite what would appear to be a strong incentive — with $50 million sitting in SpaceX’s account — Spacecom has not announced a launch provider for Amos-17. The satellite is scheduled for launch in 2019.
Using Amos-6 to reorient government policy
IAI, a diversified aerospace equipment provider that builds telecommunications and Earth observation satellites — both radar and optical — has long warned that it cannot maintain a viable telecommunications satellite production line without a more-secure customer set, starting with the Israeli government.
Weiss said the loss of Amos-6 was an occasion to drive home the point.
“After Amos-6, we started a campaign in Israel stressing the need for a national satellite builder to assure Israel’s long-term autonomy in satellite infrastructure,” Weiss said. “The state of Israel needs to make satellite production a question of strategic importance. Satellites are necessary for many things these days, including government missions.”
IAI has developed an all-electric satellite design called Amos-E, which like IAI’s Earth observation satellites is designed to deliver mid-size satellite capacity in a small package: 4 kilowatts, 10-20 transponders and a launch mass of 1,500-2,000 kilograms.
IAI continues to bid on Earth observation satellite programs around the world and company officials have said they sold a high-resolution — around 38 centimeter ground resolution at nadir — optical satellite to an unidentified military customer outside Israel.