Space launches and the cost factor

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Zvi Kaplan: “We would like to see more collaboration with more countries, using our capabilities and resources.”
Zvi Kaplan: “We would like to see more collaboration with more countries, using our capabilities and resources.”

T.S. Subramanian

Zvi Kaplan, Director-General of the Israel Space Agency, on science cooperation between India and Israel, the need for low cost transportation into space, and the advantages of electric propulsion.

In 2008, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch Israel’s scientific instrument called Tel Aviv University Ultra-Violet Experiment (TAUVEX) on board the GSAT-4 from Sriharikota. The Director-General of the Israel Space Agency, Zvi Kaplan, who was in Hyderabad in September to attend the International Astronautical Congress, in an interview, praised the late Dr. Vikram Sarabhai’s vision to use space technology for societal benefits in education, agriculture, telecommunication, etc. Excerpts:

At what level is the current cooperation between ISRO and the Israel Space Agency?

We have an ongoing scientific mission named TAUVEX, which is short for Tel Aviv University Ultra-Violet Experiment. The essence of this programme is to launch an ultra-violet astronomical telescope in a geostationary orbit on board an Indian satellite [GSAT-4] and doing from there scientific, astronomical observations in deep space. As you know, you cannot make observations in the ultra-violet region from the ground. You need to have an ozone layer to absorb the radiation. In the last few years, this area of astronomical observation has generated an enormous interest and we have learnt a lot on the evolution of our cosmos. Every day, there are new discoveries due to improving instrumentation in the whole of the electro-magnetic spectrum. The significant part of this discovery is coming from observations from the huge telescopes located in Chile, Hawaii, South Africa, and other places.

The ultra-violet spectrum has some observations made by the Hubble telescope and by spacecraft Galex but still a lot has to be learnt. A part of this project is managed by a team headed by Prof. Jayant Murthy in the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore and Prof. Hagai Netzer and Prof. Noah Brosch in Tel Aviv University. A significant contribution to the project is the launching of the telescope on board GSAT-4. It will be done by the Indian launcher GSLV (Geo-synchrononous Satellite Launch Vehicle).

What are your future plans for cooperation with India? Would you like India to launch your remote-sensing and telecommunication satellites?

The world is entering a free market. Usually, these launches are business projects. They look for the best deals in terms of money, reliability of the launcher and other payloads in the satellite. They have to do their business calculations. I can say in parenthesis that India has a very good record of launch history.

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) has a wonderful record of 10 successes in a row.

As I said, it is a business decision. I am not saying you search for the lowest price. You have to consider the whole package.

Why did you prefer India’s GSLV to launch your telescope? Is it because the launch cost is low?

No. This telescope programme has had a long history. It was started in the 1990s. The telescope was developed within the framework of a big European experiment in the 1990s led by the former Soviet Union. But for several reasons, this programme was terminated and we were looking for new opportunities to resume it. The telescope was waiting. We were continuously trying to find [an opportunity to launch it]. Eventually, there was a discussion with India regarding scientific cooperation and I believe the talks were started again.

On the Israeli Space Agency side, within the timeframe of 2003, this discussion was started, and as part of the scientific collaboration, India agreed to contribute to the launching part of TAVUEX. Of course, the scientific cooperation with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, continues.

Chandrayaan-I, which India is going to launch in April 2008, is virtually an international mission. Several countries are contributing payloads to the spacecraft, Chandrayaan-I. Would Israel like to contribute any pay loads to Chandrayaan-II?

Yes. We have some proposals and plans. They [ISRO] asked us generally. But we have a limited budget. We are always facing a problem of what to do and what not to do. Sometimes, it is important what you choose not to do. There were some proposals but there were always limitations of budget.

After I came to the Agency, I am trying to do two main activities. One is to look at our capabilities that exist in our academia and industry, and to leverage them for a joint programme for bi-national collaborations. Usually, these programmes, from the time they are envisioned as an idea till they materialise into real projects, take years. One of these activities is to construct and launch with the French space agency, the CNES, the VENUS programme. (France and Israel will build a micro-satellite called VENUS, based on Israeli satellite structure. This satellite will include a space camera developed in Israel. It will use special algorithms developed in Israel. The launch will take place in 2008).

The scientific collaboration with India is already there, although it is a much smaller programme. We would like to see more collaboration with more countries, using our capabilities and resources. In parallel, we are acting, negotiating with our government to increase our budget so that we could do more.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has said the International Space Station, which the U.S. has built in collaboration with 15 other countries, is an excellent model for future international missions to the moon and Mars. Will Israel take part in the future missions to the moon and Mars?

I respect that [what Griffin said]. I repeat that since our budget is small, we would like to choose the place where our contribution is significant. I can give you examples. Israel is very strong in small satellites, small payloads. If our payload can be useful for an interplanetary mission such as to Mars, we may try to [send it]. If we think there is a mission to exhibit our innovative power, our technological capability, our uniqueness, then we would like to use it. Usually, in these collaborations, money is not important. If this situation were to come about, we would like to invest our small money in such missions that exhibit our uniqueness.

You say that ISA has a small budget. ISRO too has a limited budget. But within that limited budget, ISRO has done well.

I am excited about the Indian space programme which, I think, is a unique example of the vision of the late Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. A significant part of India is aware of it... In this sub-continent, with hundreds of religious beliefs and relatively not developed infrastructure, satellites provide multi-dimensional solutions in education, agriculture, water, resources and telecommunication. You name it, it is all known. All this is self-obvious now. But finding this vision in the 1960s and the commitment of various Governments [of India] later on to implement that vision is a cause for great admiration…

We always have to be innovative and think a little bit differently from others, not to go in the mainstream. So even now, we [Israelis] think we have a successful technology, mainly in earth observations. We should think how the next decade and the decade beyond will look like, which technology we should pursue and which fascinating programme we should create in space.

Griffin said he was convinced that humans would land on Mars in 2037. Do you believe that the date is realistic?

Let me answer it not directly. The main problem right now is the cost of the launch. If they [the collaborating countries] are led by the U.S. and you do a dedicated effort, you may land on Mars. But you would like to see, like the Indian vision, an economical cost. This is still hard to predict — how to overcome the economic [viz. expensive] aspect of space transportation. So it may happen. In history, there have been many visionaries who have made predictions.

Some were accurate and some extremely inaccurate. There are many well known examples. The cost to reach space has not changed much in the last 50 years. I believe that this question is crucial. Yes, if the U.S. decides to allocate enough budget, and with collaborative spirit and readiness of many nations, that [humans landing on Mars in 2037] may be achieved.

What do you specialise in, launch vehicles or satellites?

I am into plasma physics. I work on electric propulsion. I initiated this activity in Israel — the whole of electric propulsion… It is good for relatively low-cost missions such as station-keeping or interplanetary missions. From electric propulsion, you get a very high specific impulse. So with a small amount of fuel, you can use electric energy and get a very high thrust. In missions such as station housekeeping of geo-synchronous satellites or interplanetary missionaries, this technology is slower but has a better fuel economy.

Is electric propulsion another kind of propulsion besides solid, liquid and cryogenic?

No. The principle is you take gas and heat it by electricity that you collect from your solar panel or any other source of energy. It is a self-supporting technology. It is already developed. It has been a functioning system for the past 10 years.

Do you need nuclear propulsion for interplanetary travel?

You are asking me a question in which I am not much of an expert. It depends on the calculations. You always want to have innovative solutions. If you go for nuclear propulsion, you should be aware of safety. How to take care of it? You have to make the final accounting for any eventuality. But I believe in the future, there may be fusion technology in nuclear energy.



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