Middle East Space Roundup: 9 to 15 April 2023
A summary of all the space news in the Greater Middle East over the past week, powered by AzurX
The following are the major space developments in the Greater Middle East region tracked by Middle East Space Monitor over the past week:
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9 April 2023
Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that the jamming of satellite navigation systems such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) over Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean has recently increased. Ha’aretz says that the jamming is likely the result of increased Israel Defense Forces (IDF) use of electronic warfare systems against Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles and rocket attacks from the West Bank and Southern Lebanon. This electronic jamming results in false satellite navigation readings for civil aviation that has been described as “irritating” rather than dangerous. This is not the first time that interference in satellite navigation over Israel has occurred. In 2019 there was significant interference that affected civil aviation and was attributed to the Russians using electronic jammers to protect their military base in Latakia, Syria, from drone attacks.
10 April 2023
Two weeks after it was successfully launched from Israel, the Ofek-13 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) reconnaissance satellite operated by the Israeli Ministry of Defense has sent back its first high-resolution radar images. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the company that built Ofek-13, describes the imagery as being of “excellent quality.” Avi Berger, the head of the Israeli MoD's Space and Satellite Administration has said that Ofek-13 “will drastically improve Israel’s intelligence capabilities from space for years to come.”
The head of the Turkish Space Agency, Serdar Hüseyin Yildirim, told the TASS News Agency in an interview that Türkiye is committed to continuing and deepening space cooperation with Russia’s Roscosmos. Yildirim told TASS that, “[a] foundation has been established for broad cooperation between the two countries in the space sphere. The Space Agency of Turkey and Roscosmos continue to work on joint projects. It is likely that in the near future important results will be achieved.”
13 April 2023
Russia’s TASS News Agency also reports that Iran’s ambassador to Russia, Kazem Jalali, announced at a conference in Moscow that the Islamic Republic should like to cooperate on Russia’s satellite communications and Earth observation ‘Sfera’ mega-constellation programme. Jalali said that, "Sfera is considered an outstanding economic and political opportunity as well as an opportunity in the field of security. We, in the context of our long-term program of cooperation with Russia in the field of space, state our readiness and full intention to work as partners and be present in this cloud project." The Sfera programme was initially announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 and is expected to be completed by 2030. Sfera will ultimately consist of 640 communication and Earth observation satellites, with the communication satellites arrayed across low- and medium-Earth orbit (LEO, MEO) as well as Geostationary orbit (GEO).
14 April 2023
In a press conference with journalists from around the world, Major General John Olson, U.S. Space Force, briefly spoke about the U.S. desire to work more closely with friendly states in the Middle East on national security space issues. In his answer to a question from an Emirati journalist, Major General Olson said that the United States has, “significant dialogue ongoing with lots of interest from Middle – several Middle East countries interested in developing and expanding their own space agencies, their own space capabilities. And as we see Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE all looking to expand beyond oil and petroleum-based economies into the knowledge-based economies, space is at the forefront of that, and I think that’s really of interest to us…So this is just the beginning of what we hope will be a long and productive level of engagement and discussion. I personally believe that as you look at the importance of the region, as you look at the importance of an integrated global perspective that space can bring, there’s lot of opportunities ahead there.”
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft was successfully launched on its eight year mission on an Ariane 5 space launch vehicle from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. On board JUICE is an Ultra Stable Oscillator designed and developed by Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and manufactured by Israeli company AccuBeat. The Israel Space Agency funded the Israeli instrument and is an official partner of ESA’s JUICE mission. The Ultra Stable Oscillator will be used to examine the atmosphere’s of Jupiter and its moons as the JUICE spacecraft passes by them.
It’s April, so the annual space threat reports by U.S. not-for-profit think tanks Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) are now out, both with significant updates on the military space activities of major space powers such as the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan, and France. Of particular interest to readers of the Middle East Space Monitor are the respective chapters in both the SWF and CSIS reports on Iran’s military space activities. In both SWF’s Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment and in CSIS’s Space Threat Assessment 2023 the respective authors note that while Iran is slowly improving its ability to reliably launch its own satellites, the systems they place in low-Earth orbit (LEO) are rudimentary. This said, both the Iran Space Agency (ISA) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operate between them five types of space launch vehicles (ISA three, IRGC two), with the latter developing solid fuel launch vehicles that also double as long-range ballistic missiles. Both reports also note that while Iran has a considerable ballistic missile development programme there is no evidence that the Iranians are developing a direct ascent antisatellite (DA-ASAT) capability, probably because they are unable to obtain and develop the necessary homing and tracking technologies that can enable a warhead to intercept a satellite. Similarly, while Iran has some basic space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities these are not up to the task of accurately detecting, tracking, and targeting all satellites that pass over Iranian territory. Both reports do allege, however, that Iran regularly uses electronic warfare to jam and spoof commercial and civil communication and navigation satellites in and around its territory. The reports also state that the prospect of Iran developing more sophisticated counterspace capabilities, such as co-orbital antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, is a long way off due to the impact of international sanctions, Iranian space technology development, and lack of policy intent by leadership in Tehran. All this said, however, both reports note that in the past several years there appears to be an uptick in Iranian development of satellite technologies and ambitions, and that these have been boosted recently thanks to cooperation with Russia.
The CSIS Space Threat Assessment 2023 report also mentions Israel’s Iron Beam missile defence system as a potential counterspace capability. Iron Beam, developed and built by Israeli defence company Rafael, is a directed energy system designed to intercept unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, and ballistic and cruise missiles. According to the authors of Space Threat Assessment 2023 Iron Beam could also be evolved to become a counterspace capability with some technological improvements that increase the systems’ power and ability to target satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). The report’s authors, however, are careful to note that there is no evidence to suggest that Rafael or the Israeli government are developing such improvements and Iron Beam remains a terrestrial weapon system for the time being.
15 April 2023
After several days of delay due to bad weather, a SpaceX Falcon-9 satellite launch vehicle successfully launched 51 Earth observation and remote sensing satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, United States. Among the 51 satellites launched in what SpaceX call its Transporter-7 mission are the primary payload, IMECE - Türkiye’s first indigenously-built high-resolution Earth observation satellite - as well as a hyperspectral imaging Cubesat for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and an Earth observation nanosatellite for the UAE’s Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA). The IMECE Earth observation satellite, developed and built by TÜBITAK Space Technologies Research Institute (TÜBITAK UZAY), is Türkiye’s first indigenously built high-resolution Earth observation satellite. The project, also known as the IMECE Satellite Systems Infrastructure Project, officially began in 2017 and is intended to establish the infrastructure, capabilities, and capacities required for Türkiye to build high-resolution Earth observation satellites in-country in the future. IMECE has a mass of 800 kilograms and is in a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) at an altitude of 690 kilometers. IMECE had a panchromatic resolution of 0.99 meters and a multispectral resolution of 3.96 meters, and has an expected operation lifetime of five years. TÜBITAK UZAY also had another satellite launched on the SpaceX Transporter-7 mission, called SSS-2B. The SSS-2B is a 3U CubeSat that will demonstrate and validate various subsystems and hosts a double Earth observation and radiation dosimeter payload. Lastly, a third Turkish satellite was launched by the SpaceX Transporter-7 mission. KILICSAT is a 3U Cubesat built by GUMUSH Aerospace and the University of Turkish Aeronautical Association. KILICSAT has an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver and an amateur radio beacon on board.
A team from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) also has cause to celebrate the successful SpaceX Transporter-7 mission. The KAUST team, in cooperation with satellite company Spire Global, developed and built a 6U Cubesat with a high-resolution hyperspectral imager developed by KAUST and a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) reflectometry system developed by Spire. The Cubesat will collect high-resolution and high-quality data across the terrestrial, coastal, and ocean ecosystems around the globe in order to assist Saudi Arabia in monitoring its unique natural resources.
Also successfully launched by SpaceX’s Transporter-7 mission is DEWASAT-2, an Earth observation nanosatellite operated by the UAE utility company Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA). Built by Lithuanian satellite company NanoAvionics, DEWASAT-2 has an optical camera with 4.7 meter resolution as well an infrared sensor for measuring greenhouse gases. DEWASAT-2 will enable DEWA to monitor its utilities infrastructure and network as well as monitor carbon emissions. In January 2022 DEWASAT-1 was launched, an Internet of Things (IoT) communication nanosatellite. Both DEWASAT-1 and -2 are part of DEWA’s Space D programme that will eventually see a constellation of IoT and Earth observation satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to help the company provide more efficient and responsive utility services and mitigate its carbon emissions.
On the first day of a state visit to the United Arab Emirates by Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the two countries commit to deeper cooperation on space issues. In a joint statement by the Brazilian President and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, “[T]he two leaders, affirming the importance of bilateral cooperation for the peaceful and sustainable use of space, agreed to further enhance cooperation in space in a mutually beneficial manner.”
Be sure to catch up with space activities in the region in the next edition of Middle East Space Monitor’s space roundup!
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