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Israel plans to invest NIS 600 million to develop civilian space tech

New project by Israel Space Agency hopes to position country as ‘one of the world’s leaders in the space industry’

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Tech Israel editor and reporter.

Illustrative: The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station for docking, April 24, 2021. (NASA via AP, File)
Illustrative: The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station for docking, April 24, 2021. (NASA via AP, File)

Israel is planning to spend NIS 600 million ($180 million) over the next five years to back the civilian space industry and support new startups developing advanced technologies for the space sector, according to a detailed program presented this week by the Israel Space Agency to the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology.

The plan was introduced amid what the ministry called a “dramatic change” in the space industry in recent years, as the endeavor has moved away from the exclusive realm of governments and opened up to civilian investors and entrepreneurs. This was seen most recently in the world’s first private mission to the International Space Station carrying three private astronauts including one Israeli, who fully funded their ride to the tune of approximately $50 million each.

Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander mission in 2019, and the second mission in 2024, are also considered part of the budding civilian space industry.

Israel is home to a number of promising space tech startups including Helios, which is developing technology that can produce oxygen needed for fuel from lunar soil, and Ramon.Space, a company building supercomputing systems for the space sector.

The Israel Space Agency’s plan hopes to “enhance the strength and independence of the State of Israel by positioning it as one of the world’s leaders in the space industry,” leverage space tech for economic growth as part of the Israeli tech industry, and “enhance Israel’s international status,” according to the announcement.

Among the targets presented by the agency are doubling the number of Israeli space companies from about 60 currently to at least 120, quadrupling the number of people employed in the space industry, from 2,500 to 10,000, increasing the number of space researchers in academia, and boosting Israel’s presence in international space-related organizations.

An illustration of the Lunar Extractor technology developed by Helios, which the startup hopes will be able to make oxygen on the moon (Courtesy)

The plan includes establishing a space-based national center that will allow for the integration and use of space technologies “within the activities of the government and additional entities,” according to the announcement, and facilitating access to space for Israeli entrepreneurs to test their technologies through the annual launch of an Israeli satellite to a region of space called low Earth orbit (an orbit relatively close to Earth with altitude ranging from 200–300 km to 1,600 km)

The initiative also calls for expanding the Tevel program, where junior high school and high school pupils participate in space-related projects like building satellites, as well as backing the SHALOM (Spaceborne Hyperspectral Applicative Land and Ocean Mission) satellite initiative, a joint venture with Italy, which had been slated to become operational in 2021.

Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen in Tel Aviv. April 27, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“The civilian space industry is undergoing a global revolution,” said Minister of Innovation, Science and Technology Orit Farkash-Hacohen in a statement provided to The Times of Israel. “There is huge economic and commercial potential for the Israeli economy and for the Israeli high-tech industry.”

Hilla Haddad-Chmelnik, director-general of the ministry, told The Times of Israel, “The global space industry is going through a major revolution. The industry has doubled its size in the past decade and is expected to reach an estimated value of one trillion dollars in upcoming years.”

Israel has “profound advantages in this field, especially in the defense sector. Therefore, now we must act to promote the civilian space sector and connect it to the thriving Israeli high-tech sector. The strategic plan led by Israel Space Agency will cope with this exact challenge. The space sector is on a major momentum and reaches every aspect of our lives — this strategic plan is part of an important process to uplift this industry.״

Haddad-Chmelnik said space was “being transformed from the domain of governments to the domain of the private market, and this presents a huge opportunity” for Israel.

Israel’s space adventures

Over the past five years, Israelis have been engaged in a number of prominent space-related projects.

In 2021, Tel Aviv University staff and students released into Earth’s orbit a nanosatellite they built, a first-of-its-kind small satellite for information-gathering and testing.

In 2017, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) launched a nanosatellite into space to conduct scientific missions for researchers, the result of a five-year project developed by BGU, Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space.

NSLComm, an Israel-based aerospace tech startup that developed a nanosatellite that expands in space to boost connectivity capacity, launched its first satellite, the NSLSat-1, in 2019, as part of the payload of a Soyuz rocket.

TAU-SAT1, the nano-satellite developed by Tel Aviv University. (Tel Aviv University)

Also in 2019, Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft, co-developed by the SpaceIL organization and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), crashed into the moon’s surface and dashed the country’s dreams of putting a lander onto the Earth’s satellite.

The first spacecraft was budgeted at $100 million, a fraction of the cost of vehicles launched to the moon by major powers US, Russia and China in the past. It was a joint venture between SpaceIL and IAI but funded almost entirely by private donations from well-known Jewish philanthropists, including Morris Kahn, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Lynn Schusterman, and others.

One of the last photos taken by Beresheet before it crash landed into the moon, on April 11, 2019. (Courtesy SpaceIL)

The stated mission of Beresheet 2, set for 2024, would aim to break several records in global space history, including a double landing on the moon in a single mission by two of the smallest landing craft ever launched into space, each weighing 120 kilograms (265 pounds), half of which is fuel. The landers will launch on an orbiting spacecraft and then detach to take on the second part of their missions. One of the landers will attempt to touch down on the far side of the moon, which only China has accomplished to date, and the second spacecraft is scheduled to land at an as-yet-undetermined site on the moon.

Last month, Israeli private astronaut Eytan Stibbe and three others splashed down off the Florida coast after spending two weeks aboard the ISS in a landmark mission for the commercial sector, marking the official end of the first fully private mission to the orbiting outpost.

The mission is also considered a turning point in US space agency NASA’s goal of commercializing low Earth orbit.

Stibbe and his three fellow crewmembers — American real estate mogul Larry Connor, Canadian financier Mark Pathy, and veteran Spanish-American astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria — blasted off on April 8. Axiom Space paid SpaceX for transport services and NASA for use of the ISS, while charging the three tycoons a reported $55 million each for the privilege.

This photo provided by SpaceX shows the SpaceX crew seated in the Dragon spacecraft on Friday, April 8, 2022 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Israeli Eytan Stibbe is at right. (SpaceX via AP)

They were originally scheduled to spend only eight days on the space station but bad weather forced repeated delays. In total, the crew spent 17 days in orbit, 15 of those on the ISS.

SpaceX, owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, is now regularly ferrying NASA astronauts to and from the space station.

And earlier this year, the Israeli government signed onto a space program led by NASA to land astronauts on the lunar surface and establish a long-term human presence on the moon as a warm-up for future missions to Mars.

Shoshanna Solomon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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