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Israel Launches a New Spy Satellite

Early on the morning of June 11th, 2007 Israel launched a new spy satellite designated Ofeq 7 (Horizon in Hebrew). The launch of the satellite comes at a sensitive time in the Middle East surrounding Iran’s controversial nuclear project and following the war with Lebanon in the previous summer.

Ofeq 7 is the last in a series of satellites developed, built and launched by Israel. Israel’s previous spy satellite, Ofeq 6, failed to launch successfully in September 2004 and plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea. Due to its geographic location, unlike other countries, Israel is forced to launch its satellites in Western trajectory, in contrast to the Earth’s direction of rotation. This situation makes it more difficult for the Israeli three-stage Shavit launcher to reach orbit, and decreases the size of its potential payload. Partly for this reason, Israel has been forced to invest in the development of smaller satellites. While countries like the U.S. and Russia launch spy satellites weighing many tons, Israeli companies like Israel Aerospace Industries, El- Op/Elbit, Rafael, Tadiran-Spectralink, and Elisra have cooperated in developing advanced mini-satellites weighing only a few hundred kilograms. Plans are also underway to develop a smaller generation of micro and even nano satellites weighing between several dozen kilograms and several kilograms or even less.

Despite the disappointing Ofeq 6 experience, Israel’s Ministry of Defense has continued developing the Ofek 7 satellite. Reportedly, at least three other military satellites are currently under development. These include TechSAR radar satellite scheduled to be launched from India later this year and two other optical satellites: Ofeq-8 and “Ofeq-Next”, which are planned to be utilized within the next few years.

Although no information has been officially published regarding the imaging capabilities of Ofeq 7, experts widely believe that the satellite’s camera is capable of capturing images at a resolution well below 1-meter, from its orbiting altitude of 300-600km.

Israel is also looking into alternative launch options. In a research published in 2004 by Colonel Yoram Ilan-Lipovski, Ret., for the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, the author described two additonal advanced launch platforms which Israel may utilize for deploying new space assets on short notice in case of a potential conflict.

The first platform suggested by Lipovski is a heavy airborne launch using a cargo plane such as a Boeing 747. The launcher can be carried either under the body or wings of such an aircraft (according to Lipovski, Israel holds patents in this field). The great payload weight that this aircraft is capable of carrying, allows it to carry a launch system for the Ofek satellites family (weighing several hundred kilograms). Such a platform would increase Israel’s ability to launch mini-satellites, and would enable the simultaneous launching of several micro-satellites or large numbers of nano-satellites, says Lipovski.

The second platform suggested in the research is a light airborne launch using a fighter aircraft, such as the F-15. A launcher of this kind has been developed on the basis of the Black Sparrow Missile developed by the Israeli Rafael Company to simulate enemy missiles such as the Scud for Israel’s anti-ballistic Arrow Missile Program. This system can launch a single micro-satellite or a group of nano-satellites on short notice.

More information on the Ofeq 7 launch can be found on Israel’s Aerospace Industries Website.
Image: Shavit launcher carrying Ofeq 7 taking off from the Palmahim Air Force base (Credit: Israel Aerospace Industries).