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Digital Battlespace

Smaller is beautiful for Israel

21st May 2021 - 14:54 GMT | by Arie Egozi in Tel Aviv

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Lift-off for Ofek 16 — but do smaller satellites have more potential? (Photo: IAI)

IAI is exploring the potential of nanosatellites and microsatellites to deliver persistent overhead surveillance of threat areas.

Approved organisations from various allied countries will be able to obtain relevant data from the same constellations of nanosatellites and microsatellites by using ground stations with different ‘access keys’.

This is one of the advanced options being evaluated by the Space Division in Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Systems Missiles & Space.

A nano or microsatellite constellation must comprise a considerable number of platforms to generate immediate tactical intelligence, said Shlomi Sudri, IAI Space Division GM. ‘The world is moving towards what is called “New Space” – constellations of nano and microsatellites. These constellations will enable many revisits of areas of interest.’

Speaking exclusively to Shephard, he described the small and very small satellites as ‘the future of space as an observation post to what goes on at ground level’, adding that such a constellation can be built gradually until the optimal number of satellites is in orbit.

A large constellation of Earth observation nanosatellites could be used to provide persistent overhead reconnaissance and ballistic missile early warning by covering countries such as Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Sudri could not divulge many details about IAI micro and nanosatellite programmes as they remain largely classified, although he mentioned they would ‘complement the capabilities of the current high-end spy satellites from the [IAI] Ofek series’.

IAI faces competition from domestic rival Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which developed its Life Sat nanosatellite for global surveillance as a potential partial substitute for UAV-based ISR missions.

‘Each nano and microsatellite is relatively low priced, but when you need a very big number, the price becomes a problem. That is why we evaluate joint ventures with other countries,’ Sudri noted.

He acknowledged that the optical capabilities of a nanosatellite are limited by the relatively small aperture of its optical payload, but ‘we are giving the nanosatellite other capabilities that will increase its performance in space’.

For example, IAI is equipping its nanosatellites with ‘improved electronic systems’ and building a ground station that will ‘receive the Big Data produced by a constellation and turn it into useable data for the different users’.

Nanotechnology and miniaturisation may be relatively new to the space scene, but larger low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites remain the backbone for space-based military ISR.

IAI is developing replacements for older LEO reconnaissance satellites or upgrading their capabilities by using a team of experts to plan the optimal inclination of each satellite in different areas of the world to optimise the results from the optical payload.

The Israeli military used to rely on the commercial Amos communications satellite platform operated by Spacecom. However, the growing demand for SATCOM on land, sea and air prompted the Israeli MoD to invest in a dedicated communication satellite for the IDF and other military agencies.

As a result, in January 2020 the MoD awarded IAI a contract to build the Dror 1.

This advanced platform is intended to meet the SATCOM needs of the Israeli defence establishment for the next 15 years. Dror 1 will enable advanced digital communication and deliver what IAI calls agile ‘smartphone in space’ capabilities.

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