Shavit: The Israeli Wonder Comet

Israel’s geopolitical history notwithstanding, the country’s space agency has had many successful space missions, all thanks to their wonder comet, The Shavit!

Israel’s space dreams were conceived in the hallowed halls of Tel Aviv University in early 1960s. The National Committee for Space Research (NCSR) was formed by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities to increase research activities across the academic communities in Israel. While at the time establishing a space program was not particularly one of its goals, the committee ended up developing infrastructure for space exploration and sciences. However, due to the growing geopolitical pressures Israel was subjected to by its neighbors, it was only in 1983 that the Israel Space Agency (ISA) was set up.

The jewel in the ISA’s crown is their only launch vehicle, The Shavit, making Israel one of only eight countries in the world that both build their own satellites and launch their own launchers. The Shavit, meaning comet in hebrew, is a three stage, solid fuel rocket that allows low-cost and high-reliability launch of micro/mini satellites.They are launched from Palmachim Airbase into highly retrograde orbits over the Mediterranean Sea to prevent debris coming down in populated areas and also to avoid flying over nations hostile to Israel to the east; this results in a lower payload-to-orbit than east-directed launches would allow and is a practice that has continued ever since.

The development of the Shavit began in 1982 and is designed to carry a payload of around 350Kg. The first two stages are based on the nuclear armed Jericho intercontinental ballistic missile, confirming the military’s involvement in the development of its space program.

The Shavit has had a total of 10 launches with the first one taking place on 19th September 1988 and the last one taking place on 13th September 2016. Out of these only 2 launches were failures where the vehicle failed to enter orbit. One such failure in 2004, resulted in the destruction of the $100 million Ofeq 6 spy satellite. Israel used IndianPSLV in the subsequent launch, while upgrading the Shavit launcher.

Interestingly, South Africa has license produced the Shavit in 1989 for its own space research purposes on the RSA series of launch vehicles. However, many years of development and testing later, the program was cancelled in 1994.

The Shavit’s payload is usually the different variations of its in house reconnaissance satellite, the Ofeq. However, Israel is strongly considering using the Shavit for commercial launches as well in the future.

Is it any wonder then, that the Shavit is called the ”Israeli Wonder Comet”?

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