Mission Control: Technion Preparing for Satellite Launch

On the third floor of a plain university building, several desktop computers are preparing to communicate directly with a satellite orbiting the earth.

This is mission control.

It is a mere microcosm of NASA’s facilities in the United States. But if all goes well with a planned June 23 launch, a satellite designed and built at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology will be controlled from the school’s campus overlooking this northern Israeli port city.

TechSat, which is designed to enhance communications and study the ozone layer, began as a student project nearly seven years ago. It then developed into a collaborative enterprise between the Technion, Israel Aircraft Industries and several smaller Israeli companies.

About 14 of the engineers working on the project had worked for the Russian space agency before immigrating to Israel earlier this decade.

Although the Technion was already in the midst of developing the technology, “we gained the experience of the Russian space program,” said Moshe Guelman, director of the Technion’s Asher Space Research Institute.

Gurwin TechSat II is not the first Israeli-built satellite, but this marks the first time that an Israeli university has developed a satellite that will be placed into orbit.

An earlier attempt by the Technion to launch a satellite failed three years ago, when the Russian rocket carrying it was unsuccessful in achieving orbit.

But Guelman exudes optimism about TechSat as he sits at a computer on top of which stands a Hebrew sign: “Results and No Excuses.”

The 106-pound satellite, which is about the size of a large milk crate, will perform a variety of tasks during its expected one-year life span in space. These include testing superconductor materials that could allow communications satellites to carry more channels in a smaller space and using an ultraviolet sensor to determine the ozone content of the atmosphere.

A video camera on the satellite will transmit images of the earth’s surface.

While Israel has successfully launched its own satellite in recent years, the enterprise is expensive. Launching TechSat from Israel would have cost some $12 million to $15 million, Guelman said.

So the Technion turned to Russia for a “piggyback” launch, though it chose a different company than the one used for the failed 1995 attempt. For only $450,000, TechSat will be one of several foreign satellites launched next week from a Russian military facility in the former Soviet republic of Kazahkstan.

The total cost of the TechSat program is about $8 million, which includes the cost of developing and launching the failed first satellite, said Guelman.

The Israeli government provided some support, but Technion officials say that the project would not have happened without the support of New York Jewish businessman Joseph Gurwin, who put up nearly half the funds — $2 million for the first satellite and another $2 million for the current one — and whose name is printed on TechSat II.

Gurwin, who in 1936, at the age of 16, immigrated by himself to the United States from Lithuania and lost both parents in the Holocaust, developed a highly successful business of manufacturing fabrics for the U.S. military.

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