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3 Israeli nanosatellites blast into space to test new method for rescue beacons

Trio of shoebox-sized, fuel-sipping spacecraft aim to provide emergency location services usually supplied by much larger satellites

Screen capture from video of a rocket that launched three Israeli nanosatellites from Kazahkstan, March 22, 2021. (Twitter)
Screen capture from video of a rocket that launched three Israeli nanosatellites from Kazahkstan, March 22, 2021. (Twitter)

A Soyuz rocket blasted off Monday from Kazakhstan carrying a payload that included three Israeli nanosatellites that will test an alternative way of providing emergency location services for those in need of rescue.

The launch had been delayed for two days due to bad weather but eventually succeeded in sending 38 small satellites from 18 countries on their way to space.

The shoebox-sized Israeli satellites, made by the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, will be placed in an orbit 600 kilometers above the surface of the planet for a three-year orbit.

The satellites are being launched to test whether a series of small satellites, instead of a single large satellite, can be used to monitor signals from emergency locator beacons used by ships, planes, explorers and hikers. If it is possible, researchers say it could pave the way for much cheaper monitoring of these systems.

“This is a significant step forward for Israeli space research and technology,” aerospace engineer Pini Gurfil, the mastermind behind the project, told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “This opens new possibilities for locator beacons, and for the miniaturization of satellites which is an important focus internationally, and seen as a disruptive innovation.”

The trio of satellites will be kept in perfect formation, less than 250 kilometers apart, thanks to minute on-board navigators.

A specially built fuel system, developed at the Technion along with the rest of the tech onboard, will allow each satellite to complete its mission on 400 grams of krypton, the gas often used to fill fluorescent light bulbs. This averages 133 grams of fuel per year, or 0.37 grams per satellite per day.

Nano-satellites built at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, inside the boxes from which they will be ejected in to orbit (courtesy of the Technion)

The Technion team believes that having three separate satellites located relatively close to one another, each following the location of beacons, will deliver high-accuracy readings. It will be testing the theory with its “low-cost” $9 million satellite trio, funded by the Adelis Foundation and the Israeli Space Agency, which has been in development for almost 10 years.

Gurfil said the fuel efficiency has been achieved by designing the satellites to harness natural forces to maneuver.

Professor Pini Gurfil, professor of aerospace engineering and the director of the Asher Space Research Institute at the Technion in Haifa. (Courtesy Technion)

“The Earth’s gravity propels them forward, meaning that only minimal fuel is needed for their actual orbit,” said Gurfil. “This is normal for satellites, but what is special is that these satellites also use minimal fuel to control and navigate.

“This is because they very effectively harness natural forces like gravity and atmospheric resistance to find their way. For 10 years we’ve been researching how to fly satellites in a formation without them drifting apart due to natural forces, and in a fuel-efficient way. Now we are ready to launch, and we’re moved and excited.”

Israel has already staked a place in the growing field of nanosatellites with several single-satellite launches, including one last month. Gurfil’s team hopes the ambitious three-satellite plan will further bolster Israel’s standing in the global push toward tiny satellites.

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