First Israeli research nanosatellite set to launch

The foot-long BGUSAT orbiter will enable study of weather, desertification, airglow and other phenomena

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Israel Aircraft Industries' nanosatellite BGUSAT. (Courtesy IAI)
Israel Aircraft Industries' nanosatellite BGUSAT. (Courtesy IAI)

A new nanosatellite, the first for Israeli academia, will be launched into space on Wednesday to conduct scientific missions for the 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 bit 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 Monday. Its unique orbital path close to Earth’s atmosphere will enable BGU and researchers at the Tel Aviv University to study scientific phenomena such as the Earth airglow layer.

BGUSAT's logo respresenting David Ben-Gurion, the Negev, the earth and Israel (Courtesy: Tal Inbar and Igal Gabay)
BGUSAT’s logo respresenting David Ben-Gurion, the Negev, the earth and Israel (Courtesy: Tal Inbar and Igal Gabay)

Construction of the satellite began two years ago at IAI’s space division.

“This is another step in advancing cooperation between the government, industry and academia in order to promote the Israeli space industry,” Science Minister Ofir Akunis said in the statement. “Only such a collaboration with government backing will preserve the Israeli space industry’s global standing, and will promote research, create new jobs, all while safeguarding the essential interests of Israel.”

Nanosatellites are a new tool for academic scientific research, enabling space engineering and space research at prices that are affordable for academia, said Prof. Dan Blumberg, BGU’s VP and dean for R&D. “The reduced costs allow academia to assume a much more active role in the field taking advantage of the innovation and initiative of researchers and students,” he said in the statement.

Since large satellites are so expensive, not many risks can be taken that might jeopardize their mission, making satellite engineering walk a tightrope between being conservative and innovative. Since nanosatellites are cheaper, they offer a larger arena for space innovation, the statement said.

This new project “opens up the world of nanosatellites to new and varied scientific missions,” said Col. (res.) Ofer Doron, head of IAI’s MBT Space Division. “For the first time, a dedicated computer with computing power similar to those of the larger satellites, but developed specifically for nanosatellites by the space division, has been installed.”

This nanosatellite is part of a series of educational and academic activities that the IAI considers an integral part of the Israeli space industry, he said.

BGU students and researchers who worked on the BGUSAT integrated knowledge from a variety of fields such as software engineering, electrical engineering, planetary sciences, industrial engineering and management and more. This is the first project to showcase the enhanced space engineering capability that is being created at BGU. The goal is to be able to build a nanosatellite from scratch “in-house.”

Following the satellite’s launch, the Israel Space Agency has allocated an additional 1 million shekels to fund future research based on the data received from the satellite and has sent out a call for proposals. BGU and TAU have already submitted a joint proposal to study Earth’s airglow layer.

“We expect challenging ideas from the Israeli research community,” said Avi Belsberger, director of the Israel Space Agency. This is the first time that researchers will have the opportunity to receive information directly from an Israeli satellite, without having to go through other countries or research agencies, he said.

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.

BGUSAT will be launched Wednesday on the PSLV launcher from the Satish Dhawan launching pad in India along with 103 other nanosatellites.

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