In face of Iran’s race to obtain nuclear weapons and predictions that war with Syria is on the horizon, Israel strengthened its foothold in space on Monday and successfully launched a spy satellite, which defense officials said granted the IDF unprecedented operational capabilities.
The satellite, called Ofek 7, was launched at 2:40 AM from Palmahim Air Force Base and began showing initial signs of life 55 minutes later after reaching orbit. Officials said however that it would take several days to test the satellite’s systems before it would be declared operational. The satellite was launched atop a Shavit missile.
The successful launch came as a great relief for the defense establishment and particularly Israel Aerospace Industries, lead contractor of the Ofek project. In September 2004, Israel failed to successfully launch the Ofek 6 which in its third boost stage plummeted to the sea. At the time, despite the disappointment, the Defense Ministry decided to move ahead with its development of the Ofek 7.
Weighing 300 kilograms, the Ofek 7 will orbit earth from up to 600 kilometers in space. It has a four-year lifespan and will communicate its images via downlink with an IAI-run ground station.
Defense officials said that the launching of the satellite was part of the MOD’s multi-year work plan but was also in line with the defense establishment’s “operational needs.” Israel has traditionally launched a new satellite once every two-and-a-half years staring in the late 1980s.
MOD Dir.-Gen. Pinhas Buhris hailed the successful launch and said that as a former intelligence officer he knew “firsthand” the strategic contribution the Ofek satellites made to Israeli security. The Ofek satellite is in an elliptical orbit that reportedly takes it over Iran, Iraq, and Syria once every 90 minutes.
While refusing to divulge the performance levels of the new satellite, defense officials said that it was by far the most advanced satellite Israel has launched into space. Officials said that it was superior to the Eros B satellite – launched in April 2006 – which has the ability to spot images on the ground as small as 70 centimeters. The officials refused to divulge what made it superior
“With this launch we have improved Israel’s operational capabilities by dozens of percent,” said Brig.-Gen. Haim Eshed, director of Space Programming at the MOD’s Research and Development Directorate (MAFAT). “This is due to the improvements made to the satellite and also since we now have better coverage in the skies.”
In addition to the Eros B – a civilian-owned satellite used by the MOD on a contract basis – and the Amos 1 and 2 (both communication satellites), Israel currently operates the Ofek 5 spy satellite, successfully launched in May 2002. IAI plans to launch the Amos 3 in the coming months.
It was supposed to have had a four-year life span but its producers boast that it is still functioning and continues to produce high-resolution pictures from space. Its telescopic camera was designed by Elbit Systems and has variable direction capability.