First Israeli research nanosatellite launches from India

Foot-long, 11-pound BGUSAT orbiter successfully reaches space, will study weather, desertification, airglow and other phenomena

Installing the satellite dish that will receive the data transmitted from BGUSAT and send it to the ground station at Ben-Gurion University's  Earth and Planetary Image Facility, March 2016. (Dani Machlis/BGU)
Installing the satellite dish that will receive the data transmitted from BGUSAT and send it to the ground station at Ben-Gurion University's Earth and Planetary Image Facility, March 2016. (Dani Machlis/BGU)

Israel successfully launched into space Wednesday a new nanosatellite, the first for Israeli academia, that will conduct scientific missions for Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

BGUSAT is the result of a five-year joint project between BGU, Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) and Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space.

The satellite, 10x10x30 centimeters (4x4x12 inches) — a little larger than a milk carton — and weighing just five kilograms (11 lbs), is outfitted with innovative cameras that can photograph a large array of weather phenomena and a guidance system that allows operators to choose the areas to research through a dedicated ground station at BGU. Researchers will be able to position the satellite to take a variety of pictures from different angles.

It is the first time any Israeli university will have access to data from an Israeli nanosatellite for research purposes, BGU, IAI and the Israel Space Agency said in a joint statement earlier this week. Its unique orbital path close to Earth’s atmosphere will enable researchers at Ben Gurion and Tel Aviv universities to study scientific phenomena such as Earth’s airglow layer.

Through the BGUSAT cameras, researchers will be able to track atmospheric gases like CO2 in order to understand climate change, to examine changes in ground moisture that could be an indicator of desertification and affect agricultural development, and to monitor plant development in different regions.

Another project from Tel Aviv University was one of four experiments included on the SpacePharma nanosatellite, a Swiss-based project launched in the same rocket.

The main purpose of the SpacePharma experiment is to test and demonstrate ways for building “autonomous labs in microgravity that can function in space,” Israel Space Agency Director General Avi Blasberger said on Wednesday. The ability to conduct autonomous experiments that don’t require a space-based human crew could immensely lower costs for such experiments, and so expedite research that is essential for the food and medicine industries, Blasberger added.

As relevant technologies have improved, nanosatellites have become possible that are cheaper and more expendable than the traditional, multi-ton devices that have dominated the space industry, while offering capabilities that still allow for significant research to be conducted in space. The lower cost means less risk for innovations in the satellites’ engineering and in the experiments being launched into space.

An illustration of Israel Aircraft Industries' nanosatellite BGUSAT. (Courtesy IAI)
An illustration of Israel Aircraft Industries’ nanosatellite BGUSAT. (Courtesy IAI)

The Israeli project was one of a record 104 satellites put into orbit on a single rocket, in the latest triumph for India’s famously frugal space agency.

Scientists gathered for the launch in the southern Indian spaceport of Sriharikota burst into applause as the head of India’s Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced all the satellites had been successfully ejected in orbit.

Blasberger said it may still take a few days to determine with certainty that the Israeli satellite was functioning correctly, and as much as a few weeks to be sure about the experiments carried by the Israeli and SpacePharma satellites.

“My hearty congratulations to the ISRO team for this success,” ISRO director Kiran Kumar told scientists who had gathered at the observatory to watch the progress of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately congratulated the scientists for the successful launch, which smashes a record previously held by Russia.

“This remarkable feat … is yet another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation. India salutes our scientists,” Modi wrote on Twitter.

The rocket took off at 9:28 a.m. (0358 GMT) and cruised at a speed of 27,000 kilometers per hour (16,777 mph), ejecting all the 104 satellites into orbit in around 30 minutes, according to ISRO.

The rocket’s main cargo was a 714-kilogram satellite for earth observation but it was also loaded with 103 smaller “nanosatellites,” weighing a combined 664 kilograms.

Nearly all of the nanosatellites are from other countries, including Israel, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and 96 from United States.

The launch means India now holds the record for launching the most satellites in one go, surpassing Russia which launched 39 satellites in a single mission in June 2014.

The business of putting commercial satellites into space for a fee is growing as phone, Internet and other companies, as well as countries, seek greater and more high-tech communications.

India is competing with other international players for a greater share of that launch market, and is known for its low-cost space program.

Last June, India set a national record after it successfully launched a rocket carrying 20 satellites, including 13 from the US.

It sent an unmanned rocket to orbit Mars in 2013 at a cost of just $73 million, compared with NASA’s Maven Mars mission which had a $671 million price tag.

ISRO is also mulling the idea of missions to Jupiter and Venus.

Modi has often hailed India’s budget space technology, quipping in 2014 that a rocket that launched four foreign satellites into orbit had cost less to make than Hollywood film “Gravity.”

read more: