PONTE VEDRA, Florida — The Aug. 1 launch by Europe’s Vega rocket of two satellites — one a high-resolution optical satellite for the Italian Defense Ministry, the other a French-Israeli environmental-science spacecraft — offers a once-in-a-generation showcase for IAI, the prime contractors for both satellites.
IAI for years has been trying to get a foothold in the export market for telecommunications and Earth observation satellites, so far with not much success. But the Israeli government and Israel’s ImageSat commercial geospatial imagery provider provide a domestic offer support for the optical and radar Earth observation side of the business.
For telecommunications, it’s much less clear. Israel’s Spacecom commercial satellite fleet operator is expected to decide in the next few months on a builder for its next Amos satellite. Without government support, it’s unlikely IAI will win the order and will be faced with a tough decision on whether to shut down operations.
Opher Doron, general manager of IAI’s space division, discussed both sides of the company’s business.
The 370-kilogram Optsat-3000 satellite just launched for Italy provides a 7-year life at 450 km?
Yes, that’s the nice thing about having a satellite so small. You have a small cross-section and you live on and on. We’ll get a nice lifetime out of it and we have had these models last for 15 years plus.
From a higher orbit?
No. I can’t go into the orbit details of the satellites but no I am not talking about the 600-700-kilometer range.
Should we expect an order for a second Optsat-3000 from Italy? One presumably isn’t sufficient for an operational system. This was a barter deal involving jet trainer aircraft.
This whole thing involving the trainers was not the reason they bought the satellite. It was an enabler to permit the transaction to be carried out. The countries looked at what they wanted from what the other side had and it ended with aircraft and trainers on one side, and the satellite on the other.
So you look at what you want and then you figure out how to get it. They wanted to buy a satellite in any case.
Do they need two satellites? I’m biased: I think everyone should have 10 of them. Right now I think one is what they want. I goes in a constellation with radar satellites. So they have lots of revisit and access to foreign satellites. They wanted one with fantastic resolution and good coverage that was theirs to control. That’s what they got here.
I don’t see them going right now for a constellation. There is talk about other things that I cant get into, other ways to augment the capacity. But I don’t think they are going to buy another one right now.
But once you launch the first, that’s the time to start looking at a possible second one.
You had four Optsat-3000 class satellites in your shop as of last year: One for the Israeli government, one for Italy, one for the commercial ImageSat company and a fourth that was unnamed. What’s the status now?
I cant go into the exact numbers. Some of the customers don’t want to talk about it. There are several satellites, both optical and radar, in our production facility right now. The production line is quite busy. One of them is for ImageSat, that’s clear. It’s an Optsat-3000 with great coverage, and multispectral.
For ImageSat it’s a 2019 launch?
Yes. And there are interesting discussions with potential customers who are very worried about what’s happening in their neighborhoods and are looking for good solutions. The definition of good solution to most of them is lots of targets, great resolution, and quick targeting and the availability of the satellites, meaning is it proven or does it require development?
When you look out there and try to see who can provide that, there’s not much.
But there are some: South Korea, in Europe there’s Airbus and Thales Alenia Space, all have a track record with exports.
Most of the satellites out there cater to export satellites and were designed for export purposes. Very few satellites of very high quality are out there being sold. The two that went to UAE [built by Airbus and Thales Alenia Space] are an example of two that were high-class satellites. But most of the others are export satellites, and that’s what they look like.
And the ones like those for the UAE are hugely expensive. The UAE paid 800 million euros for two satellites. I wish I could get that for my satellites. Not many other countries are willing to do that.
So what is left is low-cost, low-performance, low-redundancy — not what the guys with the serious problems are looking for. And there are more and more countries out there, in the Middle East and the Far East, that are looking for these solutions because they have serious problems on their hands.
Tell me where you get this amazing resolution and response time for under $200 million for the satellite. It’s not there.
The swath width for this class of satellite is 11 kilometers?
Depending on the height we’re flying at, it’s between 11 and 15 kilometers. It’s around 11 kilometers at 450 kilometers in altitude — but then you get the resolution down to 38 centimeters.
This is half-way between WorldView 1/2 and WorldView 3/4 for a less-than-$200 million satellite.
The export market for observation satellites has not been good in the past two years.
That’s absolutely true. People ask me why I am not selling. I answer: Don’t ask why I am not selling, ask me what deals I have lost. I have lost one: Peru. But that’s it. There has been no market, unfortunately.
But that seems to be changing. There are more and more countries that realize what they need. You know what most of the most interested ones are operating nowadays? Previous-generation French satellites. They see they can’t do much with 2-meter resolution and two targets per pass. They need real intel, and so they are talking to us.
You said the same thing in late 2015.
I know; it’s a difficult world. I wish it wasn’t.
The Italian Defense Ministry presumably will show these photos around NATO councils in Europe. Will that whet people’s appetites?
I am not sure it’s linked that way. There are two decisions that need to happen in countries that want to buy satellites like this. One is they are willing to spend the money. It’s several hundred million dollars including the launch and the ground network and the operations. It’s a lot of money. So they need to decide they want it.
The second decision they need to make is whether they are willing to to it outside their own industry, or with their own industry but in cooperation. We’re talking to several countries about close cooperation in building satellites to our design in those countries. It’s a promising avenue.
Many countries want to keep their domestic satellite industry working. I am the last to complain about that; I badger my government on this all the time. It’s a legitimate concern.
What we bring is the hard-won ability to do small satellites. Everyone is coming to realize that small is beautiful. It’s more cost-effective, agile and gets a lot of targets.
There are nations that can do good satellites. But they don’t know how to do small satellites. And if they start learning by themselves it will take 10 years to get to space. Anyone who says he can design a high-end satellite very fast, well, I don’t know how to do it.
You could structure a deal that protects your intellectual property while allowing satellite production in a customer’s country?
We would do it together, a joint design. We do some of the parts, they do some of the parts. There are different models and we are discussing many of them in different places. It’s all a question of how much they want to replicate, and how much they want to invest. There are a thousand different models for how to make it work.
This is for countries that have an established space capability.
For those just starting out, it’s a big more difficult but there are discussions there as well.
The Venus science satellite for the Israeli and French space agencies, launched with Italy’s Optsat-3000, has a secondary mission is to test a new design for satellite electric propulsion, developed by Rafael and the Israeli and European space agencies.
That starts the second mission for Venus. The move down from 720 kilometers to 450 kilometers occurs with electric propulsion. It is a Rafael-designed Hall effect thruster integrated into the same bus used for the Optsat and TecSAR radar platforms – a very similar design. The secret here is a very small electric propulsion system that in this case will enable the satellite to keep a locked orbit at low altitude. The Venus observation mission requires a locked orbit that comes by a given area at the same time and the same angle every two days. Doing that at 450 kilometers is a nice challenge. Doing that with electric propulsion is the interesting one.
Once it is flight-proven here, we’ll take versions of it and put it on the other buses.
So if it works, this gets integrated into telecommunications satellites too?
No, it gets integrated into the Optsat design. You asked about a 7-year life from 450 kilometers. Put electric propulsion on that and both those numbers change favorably. That’s where we’re going.
It’s not a GEO system, it’s designed for smaller satellites in LEO. We think electric propulsion is the way to go in LEO as well.
You have sounded the alarm that you cannot maintain a telecommunications satellite production line without a minimum government commitment. Where are you on that?
A government committee recommended a 12-year plan for three satellites, with a budget, for both the nonrecurring expenses and at the development expenses. it was a good recommendation. Nothing has happened since then.
Why not? Is the Israeli government uncertain about whether this is a strategic priority? Or is it just a matter of which ministry will pay how much?
The decision that needs to be made is whether it is a strategic priority that should be given the not-so-horrendous budgets they would need for it. The discussion occurring now is not even up at that level. They appear to be running around in circles.
Spacecom is not talking. It is acting. Spacecom put out an RFP a few weeks ago because it is fed up with waiting. The private market cannot wait for the government to make up its mind.
We are saying very clearly to the government: We cannot keep on holding this together if you don’t make a decision. No decision is not a pause, it means a No.
I think it’s coming to a head, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s not a line of business where we can make a lot of money in the export market. I don’t think it’s a line of business where anyone is making a lot of money right now. So if the government doesn’t think it’s important, then it’s not important. If it does, then we will do a great job there as we have done up to now.
So the government has to decide what it wants. Governments don’t always like making decisions, unfortunately.
A government shutdown of its domestic telecommunications satellite sector would be a first. Germany ceded its capability, then re-established it with OHB SE.
Look what it’s costing Germany now to do Heinrich Hertz [a German civil/military telecommunications satellite, recently approved]. And this is where they have already developed the bus, and they have the contracts for the navigation satellites using the same bus. They have a nice volume of production there. And still look what it costs.
We’re telling our government: Yes, it’s going to cost you some money, but it will cost far less than anyone else is paying. Look at the European Space Agency decision in December 2016 and the investment they made in communications satellite technology.
European governments think satellite telecommunications technology is good for economic growth.
I told the last space convention here: I am happy to tell you the government has decided this is important and agreed to invest 75 million in communications satellite digital technologies.
There are only two problems: A it’s not not 75 million shekels, its 75 million British pounds; and B, it’s not our government, it’s the UK government.
Unlike observation satellites, where I am optimistic, I am not very optimistic here. I hope they make the right decision. If they don’t it’s going to be sad, and in my view it will be mistaken from a national point of view. But that’s what governments are supposed to: Make decisions. Here it will probably be decided by a non-decision.
The three satellites over 12 years would be earmarked for Spacecom, and that Spacecom would commit to that?
Yes, which is what Spacecom would like to do.
How much time do you have before Spacecom makes a decision on its next satellite?
The government decision is delayed, and the longer it’s delayed the more expensive it becomes to make the decision. There’s not much time. Again, they seem to be getting their act together to make a decision. Will they? Ask me in two months.