Israel uses military expertise to join commercial space race

05.03.2015 14:55

Israel is embarking
on a five-year mission to stake its claim on a
crowded new frontier, the $250 billion a year
commercial space market.
Using the expertise of a defense industry that
created technology such as the "Iron Dome"
missile interceptor, Israel plans to move
beyond its current focus on spy and military
communications satellites into producing
civilian devices, some small enough to fit in
your hand.
"The idea was that we have a well-developed
space infrastructure for our defense needs,
and without a big financial investment, we can
use it to grab a few percentage points of the
commercial market as well," said Issac Ben-
Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency.
Ben-Israel hopes the country will capture at
least a three percent market share, but it
faces competition from global technology
giants looking for new markets and industries.
Some firms are already pushing the
boundaries of technology, such as Virgin
Galactic founder Richard Branson's project to
take tourists into space for $250,000 a ticket.
China plans to build its own space station by
2022, and Google co-founder Larry Page is
backing an asteroid mining company.
As with phones and computers, the space race
is moving into making things smaller, lighter
and more efficient - something Israel has
excelled at over decades of designing
satellites that keep an eye on unfriendly
One project, Adelis-SAMSON, is designing
three miniature, or nano, satellites for the
first controlled formation flight in space.
On a low-friction tabletop at the Technion
institute in the port city of Haifa, the
navigation system is being tested in a cluster
of round robots, the size of dinner plates, that
weave in and out of formation like
autonomous air hockey pucks.
The launch is scheduled next year. While in
orbit, digital receivers developed by a co-
creator of the Iron Dome system will locate
distress signals on earth, with the three
satellites using triangulation to achieve
pinpoint accuracy.
"We call it maximizing performance per kilo,"
said project head Pini Gurfil, holding one of
the satellites, about the size of a shoe box.
"The new propulsion system, the application
for search and rescue on demand, the
software and algorithms, they will be really
significant for the commercial market."
For decades Israel's space industry was driven
by security needs. Since the 1980s, it has
launched a series of spy and communications
satellites and is considered one of the top 10
leading space-faring nations.
But its civilian program lagged behind.
That changed three years ago when the
government for the first time earmarked a
modest sum of about 90 million shekels ($22.5
million) to the civilian space agency, which
then supported start-ups and projects such as
Industry sales have since doubled to over $1
billion. And trends favor Israel's market
strengths, like miniaturization, digitization and
making lightweight systems, said Ben-Israel.
The global commercial space economy in 2013
was estimated by the OECD to be more than
$250 billion.
In the past decade, commercial space
ventures received more than $13 billion of
non-government equity investment, said Amir
Blachman, managing director of U.S.-based
Space Angels Network.
About 20 percent of that came from angel
investors - wealthy individuals who fund start-
ups in return for a stake - and venture
capitalists. That number is rising and
Blachman expects to see the same growth in
"Because it has a broad spectrum of proven
expertise and knowledge, Israel is ripe to have
a lot of start-ups and those start-ups will have
a lot of amazing technologies for export," he
One company, SpacePharma, developed a
laboratory that fits in the palm of your hand
and will orbit in a nano-satellite, allowing
scientists to conduct experiments and watch
them happen on their smart phones.
Drug companies, food makers and others
spend about $3 billion a year to access the
microgravity of space, but only those with big
enough budgets and political connections can
send their research to astronauts on the
International Space Station for testing, said
SpacePharma CEO Yossi Yamin.
"We're expanding bandwidth that is very tight
to allow more end users," he said. "This is an
endless market."
Rather than paying millions of dollars for an
experiment, it will cost a few hundred
thousand dollars, he said. Their first satellite
will launch in the third quarter of this year.