Israel discusses joining European Space Agency under ‘special arrangement’

Cooperation desired, ball in Israel’s court, says agency head on sidelines of 13th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Tel Aviv

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

The VENµS satellite and launcher at the launch site in French Guiana on July 31, 2017. (courtesy Israel Space Agency)
The VENµS satellite and launcher at the launch site in French Guiana on July 31, 2017. (courtesy Israel Space Agency)

Israel and the European Space Agency are discussing ways for Israel to join the agency under a “special arrangement,” the director general of the ESA said Monday.

“A full member state means, according to our convention, being a European state,” Johann-Dietrich Wörner said in an interview with The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the 13th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Tel Aviv. “But we are now discussing to come to a special arrangement for Israel.”

Wörner said he had discussed the matter on Sunday with Avi Blasberger, the director of the Israel Space Agency, and they were “looking forward to establish this very special link as soon as possible.”

Israel has some very strong capabilities in remote sensing, telecommunications, technology development and science, he said, “so why not put them together with our capability of launchers, and navigation systems and so on.”

Johann-Dietrich Wörner at the 13th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Tel Aviv; Jan 29, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel).

The ESA is tasked with developing Europe’s space capabilities. Joining the agency would increase cooperation between the nations and would allow Israel to join its council and participate in programs, he said.

To proceed with the matter, Wörner has to get the support of all of the 22 member states of the ESA, and Israel has to decide what kind of partnership it is looking for with the ESA, he said. “They need to decide how they want to be linked to ESA. Do they just want to have a memorandum of understanding as we have with India, Japan or would they like to go further and do some institutional link?”

The ESA has 22 member states, all of whom are European countries. Other European states, like Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lithuania and Malta, just have cooperation agreements with the ESA. Slovenia is an associate member. Canada, at the moment, is the only non-European state that has a cooperation agreement with the ESA; it takes part in some projects under the agreement. The arrangement with Israel could be similar to that of Canada, Wörner hinted.

“The ball is on the side of the Israelis. The next step is coming from their side and then we’ll see. Maybe we can succeed within this year,” Wörner said.

Cooperation between nations is needed to go forward with space research, he added.

Space technology has the ability to tackle global challenges — from global warming to self-driving cars — and as that understanding becomes widespread, industries, academia and governments are increasingly investing in space research, which once used to be the domain of mainly the space agencies. And governments, once jealous of their space technologies and in competition with one another, are learning to cooperate in this field.

“Space can bridge earthly crisis,” Wörner said. US, Russian, Japanese and Canadian astronauts work together in space. Israel and France in August launched the Venus environmental research satellite.

Artist’s rendering of the Venμs satellite, Israel’s first environmental research satellite, launched on August 2, 2017. (Israel Space Agency)

As more countries, universities and industries enter the fray, the role of space agencies worldwide will shift from being the main enablers of the sector to “enablers, facilitators, mediators and brokers,” helping match demand with supply of technologies. “We will not be the only masters of the game,” Wörner said.

Whereas in the past, some 50 years ago, the Soviet Union and the US dominated the space scene, there are now more than 70 “space-faring nations” and industrial sectors dealing with space missions.

“The importance of space is seen today not to fulfill vanities, but space is seen as an infrastructure for daily life. With space we can tackle the global challenges. So now the world is changing with regard of who is doing space missions, and the roles of the actors is changing. Industry, academia and space agencies are doing missions. In the future it is clear the role of space agencies will develop,” Wörner said.

Israel is part of an exclusive space club

Israel is known as the world’s fifth most powerful country in cybersecurity, but not many know that Israel is also the seventh most powerful country in the world in space research, said Prof. Isaac Ben Israel, the chairman of the Israel Space Agency, in an interview Monday.

Isaac Ben-Israel (Courtesy)

“We are in a very special club” of countries that have launched satellites into space, he said. US, Russia, the European Union, China, India and Japan are all part of that club, he said. “We are on the map.”

But unlike the US, Russia and Europe, which undertake large and expensive human missions, Israel focuses on the area of innovative space technologies, launching some of the world’s lightest satellites through the development of lightweight technologies.

Israel also has  its share of startups in the field of space, Ben Israel said, with companies like Effective Space Solutions, which deals with last mile space logistics, and Space Pharma, which has developed a foot-long mini-satellite that allows researchers to perform experiments in outer space.

Setting up joint ventures with other countries is the way forward, he said to combine Israel’s innovation capabilities with the launching capabilities and vast experience of other nations. “The challenges are huge,” he said. Israel doesn’t have enough of a budget for space research, he said.

“And space is very unfriendly,” he said, suggesting that this was where Israel could excel.

Europe spent a few million dollars developing an espresso machine that works in space, he said. “Machines on earth work with gravity. They don’t work in space. Simple things don’t do that. And that is where the ingenuity of Israel and its innovation can have some advantage,” he said.

The conference was part of the Israel Space Week organized by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

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