Israel Unveils Newest Spy Satellite For Export Market

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Israel’s Ministry of Defense has granted its sole satellite-producing firm permission to market clones of the nation’s newest spy satellite, featuring a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) instrument, a year before its scheduled launch.

Approval to market the TechSAR satellite for potential export sales marks a significant policy shift for the Defense Ministry , which for 20 years has cloaked its spy satellites in a heavily classified shroud. The decision to allow government-owned Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. (IAI) to display a model of the satellite at this week’s Paris Air Show in Le Bourget — and to go public with certain performance specifications — was driven primarily by budget shortfalls and the need to recoup funds lost as a result of Israel’s failed September 2004 launch of the Ofeq-6 optical spy satellite, officials here said.

Defense and industry officials here estimate those losses at about $100 million, not including costs associated with Israel’s indigenous Shavit launcher . And while TechSAR and other formerly classified technologies associated with Israel’s Ofeq 1-6 series of spy satellites are now up for sale, one Defense Ministry official insisted that Israel’s follow- up Ofeq-7 would remain “exclusive to our national security needs… at least until it has become operational for a while.”

According to the Defense Ministry official, public hawking of the TechSAR system is an example of the ministry’s greater permissiveness in granting export licenses for crown-jewel technology, some of which has not yet been delivered to Israeli forces . “There’s definitely a policy shift here, but it’s not a complete policy reversal… We’re making sure to draw some red lines beyond which we will not cross,” the official said.

The official added that the Defense Ministry’s internal security review department constantly attempts to balance national security needs with pressures to generate revenues and forge international cooperation through technology transfers.

“We have approval to market and we really hope to sell this in the world,” said Jacob Hardy, director of international marketing at IAI’s MBT Division, producer of the Ofeq series and other satellites, including TechSAR. “Of course, we’ll need separate approvals for individual export licenses once we have firm requests in hand.”

Planned for launch in 2006, TechSAR is a 300-kilogram low Earth-orbiting SAR satellite designed to deliver high-resolution images over areas in excess of 500 square kilometers. Wide-area collection of detailed imagery will be achieved through a combination of mechanical agility built into the satellite bus and electronic steering of the SAR radar beams in what IAI calls mosaic mode.

According to IAI officials, high-powered reaction wheels, or actuators, built into the relatively small satellite allow for greater maneuverability than many larger SAR spacecraft. Moreover, IAI has developed a technique that will allow the satellite to keep its sensor trained for longer periods on areas of particular interest.

“Even though the satellite is moving very fast — something like 7.5 kilometers per second — we can compensate for this movement and make a kind of backscan that allows us to linger over a target area,” Hardy said in a June 7 interview. “So this mechanical agility combined with electronic steering of [the SAR radar antenna ] beams is our secret for achieving such a phenomenal capability for high-resolution coverage of large areas.”

Unlike optical cameras carried by Israel’s Ofeq satellites, the 100-kilogram TechSAR payload, developed by IAI’s Elta Electronics Systems Ltd., penetrates through environmental barriers such as clouds, rain, smoke and fog as well as man-made camouflage. TechSAR will orbit Earth twice a day at altitudes of 400 kilometers to 800 kilometers, capturing round-the-clock imagery that is transmitted, in real time, through a high-speed data link with a 240 gigabyte memory capacity, according to IAI data.

In an interview earlier this year, Elta President Israel Livnat said SAR data is becoming increasingly important in the imaging intelligence arena. “It offers very high resolutions similar to those of optical pictures, but in many instances the representations are clearer and free of distortions,” Livnat said.

“With optical systems, the sun is the main radiating system; you get the reflection of what the sun is illuminating. But with SAR, you control the illuminator. You’ll always get the same picture of an object, regardless of shadows or angles of the sun. Also with SAR, images don’t have to be processed. They can be delivered in real time to users,” Livnat said.

IAI Chief Executive Moshe Keret, in a Feb. 23 address to defense and industry officials at an Elta-sponsored workshop on space technologies, alluded to the commercial potential of TechSAR technology. “Our ability to integrate SAR systems and similar technology will enable our company to promote future business opportunities also in the commercial space sector,” Keret said.

Another satellite being offered by the firm for potential export is Opsat, which IAI has described as “a new generation optical observation satellite.” According to IAI marketing data approved for release at the Paris Air Show, Opsat utilizes the same basic satellite bus as TechSAR, but is designed to accommodate a variety of payloads developed by Elop Electro-Optics Industries, developers of Israel’s space-based optical imaging systems.

IAI marketing literature described Opsat as providing “accurate and rapid image targeting” due to the satellite’s “extremely high mechanical agility.”

Unlike TechSAR , however, Opsat is intended purely for commercial sales. Hardy confirmed that Opsat is not on the roster of future Israel Defense Ministry satellites.

“The idea is to demonstrate that this same low-cost, highly maneuverable bus can accommodate a variety of Elop payloads with a variety of diameters and performance capabilities. We’re now trying to attract customers, but there are no concrete orders for Opsat at the moment,” he said.

Tal Inbar, vice president of the Israel Space Society, said IAI and others in the Israeli aerospace industry are compelled to push their space platforms and related technologies on the open market due to the lack of consistent, predictable government funding. “There is a need to attract foreign clients with Israeli space products since there is no firm multiyear [defense] budget plan for space-related activities,” Inbar said. “As a result, there is no assembly line for Israeli satellites.”

He added, “Our government’s willingness to offer services of satellites like TechSAR reflects a longtime dilemma. We need to sell, and that means we have to make some compromises by lifting the veil of secrecy.”