Israel Declares Ofeq-9 Reconnaissance Satellite Operational

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TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel successfully launched its newest spy satellite June 22, adding to a constellation that includes one satellite operating well beyond its design life and boosting the credibility of the nation’s indigenously developed Shavit rocket, officials here said.

Less than three days after its nighttime launch, the Ofeq-9 satellite began transmitting its first high-resolution imagery to military intelligence users.

The 294-kilogram satellite was lofted by a slightly upgraded, heavier-lifting version of Israel’s three-stage Shavit launcher westward over the Mediterranean — counter to Earth’s rotation — to avoid flying over enemy countries in the region. Satellites typically are launched eastward, which takes advantage of the slingshot effect of the Earth’s rotation for added lift.

According to Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI), prime contractor for the launcher and satellite platform, Ofeq-9 separated flawlessly from its third stage some eight minutes after launch, and entered low Earth orbit at an injection altitude of 307 kilometers and an inclination of 142 degrees relative to the equator.

The satellite was declared fully operational June 25, following extensive subsystem testing and validation, including activation of hydrazine thrusters, produced by Rafael Ltd., which positioned the satellite into its current orbit of 590.5 kilometers by 346.4 kilometers.

While Ofeq-9’s specific imaging capabilities remain classified, program officials here say the payload is identical to the panchromatic sensors built by Elbit Systems Electro-optics for Ofeq-5 and Ofeq-7, which are capable of capturing black-and-white images at resolutions of 50 centimeters or better. A satellite’s imaging resolution corresponds roughly to the size of ground objects or features it can distinguish.

“Ofeq-9 essentially is a twin brother of Ofeq-5 and Ofeq-7,” Chaim Eshed, director for space programs at Israel’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), said of the spacecraft launched respectively in 2002 and 2007. “Now they’ll operate together as a constellation, allowing us to close the gaps between revisit time.”

Additionally, Israel operates its TecSAR synthetic aperture radar satellite, launched in 2008 by an Indian rocket, and enjoys exclusive footprint rights to the two commercial Eros optical imaging satellites. All of the spacecraft were built by IAI.

In an interview in May, Eshed said Ofeq-5 “could die out any day … the radiation is killing it.” Nevertheless, Eshed said, all of the IAI-built satellites have lasted well beyond their advertised life span.

“It’s really quite remarkable. We never expected any of the satellites to operate beyond three years or so. But now, we’re seeing that after six, seven and even eight years, they’re still performing their mission,” said Uzi Eilam, a retired brigadier general and former director of MoD research and development.

In a June 24 interview, Eilam said the successful launch of Ofeq-9 not only boosted deterrence, intelligence capabilities and national morale, but served to counter calls for curtailing or even shutting down the Shavit launcher program. “It’s not as though Shavit was headed for the chopping block, since Israel always will have to maintain some type of indigenous launch capability,” said Eilam, who also served as director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Agency. “But this success will help offset calls for cheaper alternatives.”

Israel’s last Shavit launch, in September 2004, ended in failure and caused the loss of the Ofeq-6. Ofeq-4 was also lost due to launch failure. Launch of the Ofeq-7 satellite was a success and validated an improved version of the Shavit.

Nevertheless, questions about the Shavit’s reliability were a factor in Israel’s decision to launch TechSAR aboard an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

“Each successful launch from Israel with our indigenous launchers preserves industrial self-sufficiency and strengthens our strategic deterrence,” said Tal Inbar, director of the Fisher Institute’s Space Research Center.

In a June 24 interview, Inbar said that despite the success, Israel’s future space launch manifest remains unclear due to lack of sufficient funding. “We need to grow and enhance our capabilities in the electro-optic, radar, and hyperspectral realms. The ever-threatening environment in which we live demands more space-based systems.”

According to IAI data, Ofeq-9 generates 400 watts of solar power, measures 2.3 meters high and has a solar panel span measuring 3.6 meters across. It orbits Earth every 90 minutes, and can capture images over a 7-kilometer wide swath on each pass.