Israel Eyes Overseas Launch of Next Ofeq Spy Satellite

by

TEL AVIV, Israel — Defense and industry officials here are mulling multiple deployment options for Israel’s next Ofeq-series optical spy satellite, including launching on a foreign rocket or using Israel’s indigenous Shavit 2 rocket operating from an overseas base.

Potential overseas launch sites under consideration include Brazil’s Alcantara Launch Center, Europe’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana; and — for launches of future-generation Ofeq satellites — the offshore San Marco platform near Malindi, Kenya, which is managed by the Italian Space Agency but is currently inactive.

Billed as the largest and most capable of Israel’s electro-optical imaging satellites, the newest Ofeq — like all Israeli government satellites — is being developed by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) around the firm’s new OPSAT-3000 bus. Total mass, including fuel, of the Ofeq-10 is 400 kilograms compared with the 297-kilogram weight of the Ofeq-9 launched last June from Israel aboard a Shavit rocket, according to IAI data.

The new satellite will carry a multimode camera, dubbed Jupiter, now in advanced stages of integration at a new national space lab jointly funded by Elbit Systems Electro-Optics Elop and Israel’s Ministry of Defense (MoD). According to Elop General Manager Adi Dar, the Jupiter payload is part of the firm’s future line of multimission cameras, offering black-and-white imagery with 0.5-meter-resolution or better and 2-meter color images. The camera features a 15-kilometer swath width at an altitude of roughly 600 kilometers.

“Jupiter is the first camera to benefit from the huge investment in infrastructure and calibration that went into this new national lab,” Dar said of the facility inaugurated by company executives and MoD officials in late March.

Dar declined to discuss the planned launch schedule for Ofeq-10, but in interviews here, sources said the satellite could be ready for launch in early 2013.

In the meantime, the MoD’s Defense Research and Development Directorate and other organizations involved in the Israeli space program are exploring options aimed at maximizing chances for a successful Ofeq-10 deployment.

To avoid launching over enemy countries in the region, Israel launches all of its satellites westward over the Mediterranean Sea, thus forfeiting the benefits of launching in the direction of Earth’s rotation. The resulting retrograde orbit extracts heavy performance penalties, with some experts here estimating a loss of up to 40 percent of the Shavit’s lift capacity.

Since its maiden launch in 1988, Israel’s Shavit program has suffered at least three failures out of nine publicly acknowledged launches, leading to the loss of Ofeq-4 in 1998 and Ofeq-6 in 2004. However, sources note the improved Shavit 2 is running a perfect record of two for two, successfully launching Ofeq-7 in 2007 and Ofeq-9 in 2010. Government and industry sources say IAI’s MLM Division has firm commitments to continue production of its Shavit series, although use of Israel’s Palmachim Air Base as a launch site is far from assured.

So while the three-stage Shavit 2 is technically capable of deploying the heavier and costlier Ofeq-10 into its assigned low Earth, inclined orbit, the inherent risk of failure is driving an ongoing review of alternative launch options, sources here said.

Aside from a traditional Israel-based launch with the Shavit 2, options include Russian or Indian rockets. India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, for example, launched Israel’s TecSAR synthetic aperture radar satellite in 2008.

The Indian launch service deal marked the first time Israel turned to a foreign provider to deliver a high-value government asset into space. The deal offered a venue for reciprocity for New Delhi’s investment in TecSAR and other Israeli satellite technology, sources here said.

A potential Russian launch of the Ofeq-10 could offer similar benefits by furthering diplomatic ties, strengthening embryonic defense trade between the two countries and injecting substance to a bilateral space cooperation framework agreement signed this year.

However, sources here say use of foreign rockets is the least attractive option due to Israel’s need to preserve an indigenous launch capability for its Ofeq-series spacecraft. More likely is an overseas strategy to preserve Shavit-launched Ofeqs.

Use of the Shavit 2 outside of Israel’s constrained launch environment not only preserves critical domestic industrial capabilities, but offers opportunities to deepen ties and encourage reciprocity with countries and space agencies operating the various sites. An MoD official noted that Brazil, for example, has become a focal point for the ministry’s Sibat Defense Cooperation and Export Bureau. Use of the Alcantara site could stimulate Israel’s burgeoning trade ties with Brazil, and ultimately may lead to Brazilian procurement of Israeli turnkey satellites or satellite services.

“It’s a target market with huge potential, not only in-country, but in the rest of the region,” said a Sibat official. He noted, however, that for nearly 20 years, IAI had failed in attempts to cultivate Alcantara as a venue for providing Shavit launch services on the world market.

Kourou offers opportunities to expand ties with the French Space Agency, CNES, for whom Israel is providing a satellite bus and payload for the vegetation and Earth-monitoring Project Venus. It also would allow Israel to add substance to a space cooperative framework agreement signed in January with the European Space Agency.

The equatorial San Marco site off Kenya is seen as a longer-term option for Shavit launches of future Ofeq spy satellites as well as a venue for expanding ties with the Italian Space Agency. The site has not been used for satellite launches since 1988.

“Malindi is a real dark horse, but if the Italians can get it operating again and deal with other problems, including terror and piracy, it could materialize as a meaningful alternative for the long term,” an Israeli space official said. The official declined to be named due to sensitivities surrounding the potential revival of the site. Israeli and Italian space officials have been discussing joint development of a series of hyperspectral imaging satellites, although the project remains stalled due to Israel’s inability to come up with the necessary startup funding.

An Israeli government official acknowledged that options involving overseas use of the Shavit rocket may require waivers from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international arms control code that restricts the transfer of ballistic missiles and other delivery vehicles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload more than 300 kilometers. So far, he said, Israel has not formally initiated the process to secure such waivers to any of the above-mentioned destinations.

“There are lots of ideas floating around, but at this point, it’s just background noise,” an MoD official said.

In a May 3 interview, the official said MoD will make every effort to preserve its indigenous launch capability through use of the Shavit launcher for the government’s Ofeq satellites. “We cannot allow this critical capability to atrophy, and our preference is clearly to stay with Shavit,” he said.

Tal Inbar, head of Israel’s Fisher Institute Space Research Center, said strategic, operational and industrial-base considerations required Israel to maintain an indigenous launch capability. “Use of the Shavit launcher serves various purposes, only one of which is the need to deliver a particular satellite into orbit,” Inbar said, in an oblique reference to the widely reported linkage of the Shavit launch program to Israel’s Jericho-series of ballistic missiles.

In a May 3 interview, Inbar declined to elaborate on strategic implications of the Shavit program, but voiced support for efforts to explore overseas launch options. “Diversity of launching sites is important … and thus the overseas Shavit launch strategy should be considered,” he said.