Meidad Pariente and Raz Tamir of the Israel Nanosatellite Association (INSA) with the InKlajn-1 1:1 model. Photo by Sivan Farag.Israel’s close-knit space community is gearing up for something big – and it’s really small. The Israel Nanosatellite Association (INSA) is planning a first launch of two small satellites sometime between July and September 2009, most likely from the launch pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India. “This will be a proof-of-concept for new Israeli satellite technologies,” says Dr. Raz Tamir, head of INSA and of Israel Aerospace Industries-MBT’s newly minted nanosatellite department.

It will also make the case for the nanosatellite as a cost-effective alternative to its larger cousins. As the name implies, nanosatellites are small satellites with a mass between one and 10 kg (2.2-22 lb), designed to work in formation. Cheap to build and to launch, a constellation of 60 low-earth orbit (LEO) nanosats can cover the earth.

Because a nanosatellite is significantly lighter, several can be launched at a time – at a cost of about $150,000 per satellite, as compared with $15 million per launch of a single regular LEO satellite. Boeing is the only large aerospace company that has actually built and launched a testbed nanosatellite, Tamir tells ISRAEL21c, and to date, no nanosatellite constellation has yet been launched into orbit. But INSA has plans to change all that.

INSA is a registered non-profit organization comprising professionals from Israel’s academic, commercial and industrial sectors. The organization’s stated goals include developing nanosatellite technology in Israel; developing and maintaining Israel’s qualitative advantage in space; and activities include presenting technology in an educational context; and designing a nanosatellite that will serve as the basis for future space missions.

A clubby atmosphere

Members hail from all parts of Israel’s insular space community, where everyone knows everyone else. That clubby atmosphere is most evident when reviewing INSA’s membership roll: most work for privatized government companies such as IAI and Rafael. (IAI-MBT Space Division is providing financial support and clean room facilities for the INSA project). However, there are also members from wholly commercial enterprises, such as SpaceCom and HP-Indigo, academics from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute, along with just plain space buffs.

INSA convenes on the last Monday of each month at the Herzliya Science Center, and meetings are an open affair, explains INSA spokesman Meidad Pariente, a systems engineer for IAI who worked on the Amos satellite project.

“The public is welcome. We discuss technical issues and there are always high school students, but we’ve had even younger – there was a very opinionated nine-year old at our last conference.”

It all got started in 2004, when Raz attended a conference in the US and heard about academic efforts in the field. “Nanosatellites had a bad reputation at that time for being unstable, but it seemed that problems could be solved,” he says. Raz got excited about their potential. “I gathered a group of friends and asked them to start to think about possible applications.” Meidad explains Raz’s methodology as reverse engineering, saying, “Raz challenged us to find the questions that nanosatellites might answer.”

After 10 months of studying, the group concluded that the earth’s current GPS system could be replaced by nanosatellites. It first presented its findings at a Tel Aviv University conference, and was immediately approached by two companies with offers to help. Says Raz: “The next step was, ‘let’s build one.’ So we’re building two.”

INSA was founded in 2006 and started to design and build the satellite. Several companies have jumped at the opportunity to test their technologies in space aboard the INSA nanosats, including US/UK batteries manufacturer ABSL Power Solutions, which supplied the lithium-ion cells; Jerusalem-based ROKAR International of the BAE Systems group, which provided a new type of GPS navigation system; and AccuBeat, also of Jerusalem, which is providing the atomic clock.

In addition, the advanced onboard computer employs a new VLSI/ASIC semiconductor developed at the Technion and commercialized by Ramon Chips, named in memory of the late Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. “We hope that these chips will be integrated in all future Israeli satellites,” says Raz. To memorialize the late Dr. Marcel Klajn, a pioneering Israeli space scientist and a great supporter of INSA, one of the satellites will be named InKlajn (pronounced “incline”).

Students get involved

Several INSA-sponsored educational projects will be used in launching the two nanosatellites: the ground station was developed by Jewish and Arab high school students attending an after-school course at the Herzliya Space laboratory (HSL) taught by space enthusiast and INSA member Dr. Ana Heller. The satellites’ attitude control software was developed by students at the ORT Astronomy and Space High School and College in Maale Adumim near Jerusalem, led by Netanel Levi. “We give people the chance to do hands-on development,” explains Raz. “We have a vision of where Israeli society and its education should be headed.”

Internationally, INSA is an official sponsor of Cornell University’s CUSAT nanosatellite project, and is in constant contact with Stanford and other institutions of higher learning. It has initiated several international conferences including one in Glasgow this past summer, with meetings planned for Korea for 2009 and Prague in 2010.

“We put the spotlight on nanosatellite enterprises at the last International Aerospace Conference (IAC),” says Tamir. In the spirit of drawing attention to space entrepreneurship, INSA, together with International Space University, tried the novel fundraising idea of putting nanosat ad space up for auction on Ebay. The minimum bid was $10,000, which, Raz admits, might explain why the orbiting mini-billboards went unsold, “but it did start the discussion about selling advertising in space.”

More realistically, INSA is the sole representative in Israel of Pumpkin, the manufacturer of CubeSat kits, and is also seeking funds from other sources.

In the future, INSA intends to launch more satellites together with the amateur satellite radio community and focus on nurturing the next generation of Israeli high-tech engineers. Tamir adds: “We’ve also been thinking of creating a project called JSat that would bring youngsters from Jewish communities all over the world together to build a nanosatellite together and strengthen their bond with Israeli industry.”

Getting the ball rolling early is important because the space industry is very traditional, says Pariente. “It usually takes 10 to 15 years for a new technology to enter – that’s why the space shuttle’s onboard computers are 486s – not even Pentiums. Their key word is ‘heritage’ and we hope to break the glass ‘heritage’ ceiling. Our motto is, ‘If you can make it, we can test it in space within one year.”