Israel’s aerospace industry fears fallout from satellite loss
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Israel’s aerospace industry fears fallout from satellite loss

Space minister convenes urgent talks after explosion destroys the Amos-6, while ISA head warns blast could threaten $285M sale of satellite operator Spacecom

The Amos-6, Israel's largest ever satellite, and the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on which it was perched go up in flames after the rocket exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida on September 1, 2016. (YouTube screen capture)
The Amos-6, Israel's largest ever satellite, and the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on which it was perched go up in flames after the rocket exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida on September 1, 2016. (YouTube screen capture)

The launchpad destruction of an advanced Israeli communications satellite may have dealt a blow to the country’s aerospace industry, the Israel Space Agency (ISA) said Friday.

The unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a test in Florida on Thursday, destroying the Israeli-built and -owned Amos-6 satellite that Facebook planned to use to beam high-speed internet to sub-Saharan Africa.

Dramatic footage broadcast by ABC News showed the rocket burst into a ball of flame amid what appeared to be a succession of blasts — sending its payload tumbling to the ground as a dense plume of black smoke filled the air.

ISA chairman Yitzchak Ben-Yisrael said the blast’s shock waves could reverberate far beyond Cape Canaveral.

Professor Yitzchak Ben-Yisrael (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Professor Yitzchak Ben-Yisrael (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

He said the incident could jeopardize a pending deal for the sale of private Israeli firm and Amos-operator Spacecom to China’s Xinwei group, reportedly worth $285 million and conditional on the satellite successfully entering service.

“This is the second blow, ahead of the Chinese deal,” he said, recalling the blackout of the Amos-5 satellite, which like Amos-6 was owned and operated by Spacecom.

Communication with the Franco-Italian made Amos-5 was lost in November 2015, four years after it was launched from Kazakhstan.

“There is a major question about the launch and I very much hope that Spacecom is strong enough to overcome these things and to order a new satellite,” Ben-Yisrael told Israeli radio.

“If it orders a new satellite, it will take between two and three years to fill the gap.”

Israeli business paper Globes said Thursday that the loss of the Amos-6 could directly impact on Spacecom stock, which tumbled by almost 9% in the wake of the Cape Canaveral explosion. There are, Globes said, concerns that the share price will fall further.

According to the paper, a successful launch of the satellite would have yielded Spacecom $100 million from Facebook and another $164 million from the Israeli government. And while the satellite itself was insured for $330 million, the company had issued bonds of some NIS 1 billion ($265.5 million) to fund the project, and could find itself with a monetary shortfall for “ongoing expenses.”

‘Strategic’ business for Israel

Amos-6 manufacturer Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) said the satellite was “the largest and most advanced communications satellite ever built in Israel.”

“Obviously, we are disappointed about this incident in the launch vehicle and are ready and willing to assist Spacecom in any manner,” it said. “The communications satellite business is strategic for IAI and the State of Israel.”

The Israel Space Agency, part of the country’s Science, Technology and Space Ministry, said that “support for the space industry in Israel will continue with the aim of continuing at the forefront of technology.”

It said Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis would convene industry leaders on Sunday for “an emergency debate and situation report.”

Workers for Israel Aerospace Industries building the Amos-6 satellite, in footage aired September 1, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 2)
Workers for Israel Aerospace Industries building the Amos-6 satellite, in footage aired September 1, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 2)

David Zusiman, former project manager for the Amos-3 and 4 satellite projects and involved with the early stages of the Amos-6, said the explosion was a setback but not necessarily a disaster.

“Amos-6 can be replaced by an identical satellite which it will be possible to order immediately, thanks to the insurance money they will get,” he said in an interview on public radio.

“The insurance is supposed to cover the cost of a complete satellite, including a new launch.”

The Amos-6 has an estimated value of between $200 million and $300 million, according to John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“The problem is that Amos-6 was supposed to replace Amos-2 which is now quite old and needs replacing,” Zusiman said.

“There are a number of satellites on the international market which could match Amos-2, they are also old but they could still work for a few more years,” he added. “The clients who bought the extra capability of Amos-6 could suffer damage because it sets back their programs by two to three years.”

Channel 2 said Thursday that the destruction of the Amos-6 could adversely impact on Israeli subscribers to the Yes satellite company, which relies on the Amos-2 and 3 satellites to broadcast. The destroyed satellite was supposed to replace the Amos-2, which went into orbit in 2003.

The AMOS 3 satellite (Photo credit: Spacecom via Tsahi Ben-Ami/FLASH 90)
The Amos-3 satellite (Spacecom via Tsahi Ben-Ami/FLASH 90)

Now reliant on just one satellite, at least in the short term, the company could face a breakdown in transmissions if there are any technical difficulties with the Amos-3. In any event, Yes could be forced to reduce the number of channels it offers, but says it will not remove popular channels, Channel 2 reported.

Yes was quick to deny Thursday that it would be impacted by the explosion, writing on Twitter that “Amos-6’s failure to launch will not harm Yes’ broadcasts or viewing experience. We will continue to broadcast as usual and provide our customers with the best television in Israel.”

David Zusiman also cast doubt on any adverse impact for Israel’s space projects, highlighting IAI’s “100 percent” success rate with its launched satellites.

“I don’t know if the image of the Israeli space industry will be harmed,” he said. “From a rational point of view there was a fault with a small part of the system. The rocket is reliable, it works. The IAI satellite has 100 percent success in space, something very rare.”

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