In a controversial break from a longstanding military space policy of strategic self-reliance, Israel has decided to launch its next spy satellite aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rather than its own indigenous Shavit rocket.

Officials here say Israel’s Ministry of Defense and state-owned satellite producer Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. (IAI) are nearing conclusion with their Indian counterparts of all political and contractual agreements required for the planned October 2006 launch of the TechSAR, Israel’s first synthetic aperture radar imaging satellite. On the government-to-government level, officials said, a pre-existing bilateral accord on strategic cooperation already covers most aspects of the mission.

In a Nov. 10 interview, a Ministry of Defense source estimated the PSLV launch cost at no more than $15 million, whereas the Shavit price tag ranges from $15 million to $20 million . The estimated 260-kilogram TechSAR is slated as the exclusive payload aboard the PSLV, which will be launched from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Satish Dhawan Space Center on the nation’s southeastern coast. If all agreements are finalized in the coming months, as expected, IAI will ship the satellite to the Indian launch site by summer.

Doron Suslik, IAI’s deputy corporate vice president for communications, declined all comment on TechSAR launch matters when contacted Nov. 11.

Reached by telephone Nov. 11, K.R. Sridharamurthy, executive director of Antrix Corp., the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation, said he was unable to comment due to the “confidential nature of the negotiations.”

Government and industry sources here conceded that Israel’s embrace of the PSLV was driven in large part by a loss of confidence in the Shavit, which has had reliability problems over the past decade. The latest Shavit failure, in September 2004, destroyed the defense ministry’s estimated $100 million Ofeq-6 electro-optical imaging satellite.

But several Israeli officials insisted that other factors beyond risk mitigation led to the PSLV choice, including the desire to strengthen strategic cooperation with India, the defense ministry’s largest export customer. According to multiple sources, India has begun discussions with the defense ministry and IAI regarding a possible purchase of a clone of the TechSAR satellite to enhance New Delhi’s strategic intelligence and targeting capabilities.

Another factor influencing the PSLV decision was the defense ministry’s need to accommodate new orbital requirements for the TechSAR. In a Nov. 10 interview, an industry executive said Israel’s plans to offer TechSAR imagery to key export clients necessitated a higher-inclination orbit than the Shavit could achieve.

“It was decided fairly late in the program to make certain TechSAR footprints available to high-value export customers. And if they intended to attract customers in different parts of the world, they realized a higher inclination would help capture more imaging areas,” the executive said.

Geography and politics dictate that the Shavit rocket launch westward over the Mediterranean, meaning its payloads can only reach orbits that cover low latitudes. To provide global coverage, satellites must be operate in high-inclination orbits that take them over the poles, and that requires launching them on a northward or southward trajectory, which is not an option for Shavit.

In contrast, the Indian PSLV has no such restrictions.

Other industry experts here, however, expressed doubt that a desire for a high orbital inclination drove the PSLV decision. “The Shavit could have accommodated [the defense ministry’s] business plans, but the decision was made that we could not afford another failure,” insisted one executive.

And while supporters of the Shavit were disappointed by the move to the Indian launcher, they insisted that the Israeli government has not forsaken its policy of space launch self-reliance and will deliver its planned Ofeq-7 into orbit using an improved version of the homegrown launcher.

Rachek Naidel-Ashkenazi, a spokeswoman for the defense ministry, declined to discuss specific plans for the TechSAR launch. Nevertheless, she said Israel intends to launch future military spacecraft with the Shavit. “Our policy is to preserve an independent launch capability. That has not changed,” she said Nov. 11.

Tal Inbar, a space expert and research fellow at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, said that if the TechSAR is to be launched by an Indian launch vehicle, it will be an exception to rules that have governed and should continue to guide Israeli military satellite launches. “But what’s most important is the ability to deliver the payload into space successfully. So when considering that the reliability of the Israeli launcher is not so high, it is probably appropriate to launch from another vehicle,” Inbar said.

The PSLV is a four-stage rocket that combines solid and liquid propellants. Because of TechSAR’s small size relative to most PSLV payloads, it will launch on a version of the rocket that is not equipped with strap-on boosters , Israeli sources said.

Israeli government and industry sources insist that use of the Indian launcher will not involve the transfer to India of sensitive Israeli technology or know-how. “It’s a significant step forward for strategic cooperation, but let’s not get carried away. They’re not going to be able to open up our satellite and learn our secrets,” a defense official said.

Based in Bangalore, Killugudi S. Jayaraman holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He was formerly science editor of the...