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3 tiny Israeli satellites to orbit earth on just 1 gram of fuel a day

Israeli scientists are preparing to launch a trio of tiny satellites that will hurtle around earth every 90 minutes, using a total of just 1 gram of fuel per day.

The shoebox-sized nanosatellites will leave Earth from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian rocket at midday local time on Saturday, and will be launched from the rocket four hours later, 50 kilometers above the surface of the earth, for a three-year orbit.

The mastermind behind the operation is Pini Gurfil, an aerospace engineer whose father and grandparents were banished from Russia to Kazakhstan “just because they were rich Jews.” The Israeli-born professor, whose father immigrated to Israel in 1973, told The Times of Israel that launching his innovation from Kazakhstan feels like closure of the traumatic ordeal endured by his family, which ultimately killed his grandmother.

Israel has already staked a place in the growing field of nanosatellites with several single-satellite launches, including one last month.

Gurfil’s team hopes the ambitious three-satellite plan will further bolster Israel’s standing in the global push toward tiny satellites.

The satellites are being launched to test whether a series of small satellites, instead of a single large satellite, can be used to monitor signals from emergency locator beacons used by ships, planes, explorers and hikers. If it is possible, researchers say, it could pave the way for much cheaper monitoring of these systems.

“This is a significant step forward for Israeli space research and technology,” said Gurfil, one of the Technion’s top space experts. “This opens new possibilities for locator beacons, and for the miniaturization of satellites which is an important focus internationally, and seen as a disruptive innovation.”

The trio of satellites will be kept in perfect formation, less than 250 kilometers apart, thanks to minute on-board navigators.

A specially built fuel system, developed at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology along with the rest of the tech onboard, will allow each satellite to complete its mission on 400 grams of krypton, the gas often used to fill fluorescent light bulbs.

This averages 133 grams of fuel per year, or 0.37 grams per satellite per day.

The Technion team expects that having three separate satellites located relatively close to one another, each following the location of beacons, will deliver high-accuracy readings. It will be testing the theory with its “low-cost” $9 million satellite trio, funded by the Adelis Foundation and the Israeli Space Agency, which has been in development for almost 10 years.

Gurfil said that it will be an emotional occasion. “It has taken so long to develop these satellites, especially the tiny fuel system, and this is the first launch of three satellites together by Israel, so all of this is meaningful,” he commented. “But it’s also significant on another level.

“The rocket carrying the satellites will launch from Kazakhstan. Some 80 years ago my father and his parents were deported from the USSR by Stalin to Kazakhstan — like others — just because they were rich Jews.

“My grandmother died there in Kazakhstan of hunger and was buried, and now we’re launching an Israeli satellite from the same ground. So this is emotional for me, and symbolic on a national level for the Jewish state. In a way, it feels like healing from history.”

Gurfil said the fuel efficiency has been achieved by designing the satellites to harness natural forces to maneuver.

“The Earth’s gravity propels them forward, meaning that only minimal fuel is needed for their actual orbit,” said Gurfil.

“This is normal for satellites, but what is special is that these satellites also use minimal fuel to control and navigate.

“This is because they very effectively harness natural forces like gravity and atmospheric resistance to find their way. For 10 years we’ve been researching how to fly satellites in a formation without them drifting apart due to natural forces, and in a fuel-efficient way. Now we are ready to launch, and we’re moved and excited.”

Source: Nathan Jeffay – TOI