TEL AVIV — Space may be the final frontier, but in 21st-century Israel it’s the first line
Israel expanded its strategic reach Monday with the launch of Ofeq-7, a locally made spy satellite capable of delivering close-up photographs of regional enemies.
“The successful launch adds an important layer to Israel’s defensive capabilities and is a testament to Israel’s technological strength,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz said in a
Israel is the only state in the Middle East, and among just a handful in the world, to manufacture and deploy its own satellites. In addition to Ofeq-5 and Ofeq-7, Israel also
has two civilian observation satellites in orbit.
Ofeq-7 took off atop a Shavit rocket whose launch from the Palmahim air base was a closely guarded secret until it was completed.
There were prestige as well as security concerns: The last such deployment, of Ofeq-6 in 2004, met a watery end in the Mediterranean Sea due to a rocket malfunction.
That setback stirred concern in Israel, given the need to track Iran’s nuclear program and decide when it might reach the point of no return.
“We cannot afford not to have an eye in the sky at all times,” a senior Israeli defense official said.
The first Ofeq — Hebrew for “horizon” — went up in 1988. The predecessors to Ofeq-5 and Ofeq-7 burned out according to design.
Ofeq-7 will orbit Earth every 90 minutes at an altitude of 125 to 315 miles. Its all-weather cameras can detect objects as small as a few inches in diameter.
“This kind of performance level is only available on the heavy American satellites,” the director of the Israel Space Agency, Isaac Ben-Israel, told Army Radio.
Israel Radio quoted an aviation specialist as saying that Ofeq-7 will obviate Jerusalem’s need to rely on satellite imagery supplied by the United States. But Ben-Israel predicted
that intelligence sharing would only be boosted.
“There is no country in the world that can know everything alone,” he said. “If you have something they don’t have, or if they have something you don’t, then you trade.”
The advanced initiative faces several challenges. Budgets must be considered, as each satellite costs upward of $50 million. Then there are the gritty logistics of the region. To prevent a downed satellite from falling into enemy hands, Israel must launch westward, against Earth’s orbit, which means extra expenses in rocket fuel and keeping the satellites as light as possible.
The Israeli space project was a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Syria and ! Egypt pu lled off a surprise joint offensive.
“In the modern era, there is simply no alternative to having your own means of knowing what the enemy is doing, even if it means looking into his backyard,” the defense official said.