Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is developing a large constellation of Earth observation nanosatellites to provide persistent overhead reconnaissance and ballistic missile early warning over countries and areas of concern to Israeli national security, as a supplement to Israel’s existing satellite reconnaissance capabilities and U.S. ballistic missile early warning satellites.
According to a report on Breaking Defense, experts not connected to the programme suggest that the areas of concern are likely to include Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and other countries IAI refused to comment on, according to the Breaking Defense report.
IAI’s first nanosatellite was developed and launched into space in 2017 as part of a scientific experiment. The 5-kilogram satellite is equipped with special cameras used to identify various climatic phenomena, as well as a monitoring system that allowing the selection of areas to be imaged.
”We are developing the capability to launch a constellation of Nano satellites,” said Opher Doron, general manager of IAI’s Space Division, in the Breaking Defense report. “The large number of satellites will give us the capability for a much higher rate of revisits, and actually a continuous monitoring of areas of interest.”
The optical payloads of nanosatellites are smaller and the quality of their optical payloads is lower. ”But by using a temporal resolution method this problem is dealt with in a very effective way,” Doron continued. “This method is not directly related to the quality of the sensor but is based on the frequency of revisits over a site.“
Currently, low orbit Ofek spy satellites visit areas of interest in wide intervals, preventing their optical or radar payloads from keeping a persistent watch, which could pose a major concern when surveilling a ballistic missile threat. According to Breaking Defense, Israeli sources say that, at the least, approximately 30 minutes are needed from the command to prepare a ballistic missile for launch. Thus, If the enemy is aware of the “visiting” time of the spy satellites over its territory, they may be able to avoid detection of the preparations until the launch itself.
If a launch were to occur, Israel should receive warnings from Lockheed Martin’s Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), the U.S. constellation of geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellites. The U.S. also deploys an X-band radar system in southern Israel to improve detection of ballistic missiles. This complements the layer supplied by the Green Pine radar, part of the Israeli Arrow missile interceptors.
The plan to build and launch nanosatellites first emerged a decade ago, with a proposed joint project between IAI and Rafael, but the plan was never completed.
Yizhak Ben Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency, notes that, although nanosatellites possess much less exquisite capabilities than SBIRS or other large satellites, “when you use a constellation of such satellites the combined capability can be very effective in missions like locating missile launchers,” reports Breaking Defense.
Another key advantage of nanosatellites is their price: “You go from hundreds of million of dollars for a full size imaging satellite to some millions of dollars when it comes to a nano satellite,” Ben Israel said.