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Israel Launches Test Satellite, Becoming Eighth Nation in Space

September 20, 1988
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Israel successfully launched a small test satellite Monday morning, becoming the eighth country in the world capable of sending an object into orbit.

The satellite, dubbed “Ofek (Horizon) One,” was lofted into space by an Israeli-made rocket at 11:32 a.m. local time. The launch site was not disclosed.

The satellite entered into what was described as a “low elliptical orbit, circling the globe from east to west once every 90 minutes,” at distances ranging from 155 to 620 miles.

Ofek is expected to have a life span of about one month. The time will be used to test its solar energy power plant, its ability to transmit data and its responses to orders from earth, officials here said.

They stressed it was not a “spy satellite,” contrary to reports in the foreign news media that have been predicting for the past two weeks that Israel would soon launch one.

Premier Yitzhak Shamir praised the scientific and technological community for designing, building and launching the satellite. He noted it places Israel among the few countries capable of such a feat.

He stressed that the satellite would have no effect on the regional arms race, but does put Israel into the “technological race.” With the launching, it has gained an important prestige advantage, he said.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres agreed that the Ofek launching was not a military move. He observed that “the problem is not one of borders or the level of our technological prowess, but of the tension and hatred in this region.”


The launching cast a spotlight on another political figure, Professor Yuval Ne’eman of Tel Aviv University, an internationally prominent physicist who is leader of the ultranationalist party Tehiya.

Ne’eman, who also heads Israel’s space agency, was sought out by reporters Monday. He described the launch as “very clean,” without any problems.

Ne’eman said the test satellite will be followed by a scientific satellite. He said decisions will be made about which of a series of proposed scientific experiments will be carried out by future satellites.

“This is an important step which takes Israel into the world of tomorrow,” Ne’eman said. He noted that satellites are now a multibillion-dollar business serving global communications and a wide variety of other purposes.

“Till now, we have had to buy satellite time — to pick up TV pictures from the Seoul Olympics every night. We may soon be able to sell it,” the scientist said.

Ne’eman also referred to media rumors of an Israeli spy satellite. He said they were a likely conclusion. Considering “that we have defense and security problems, they put two and two together.”

He admitted that there is a “defense aspect” to the satellite launching. That is a matter to be discussed in the future by the competent authorities, Ne’eman said.

The spy satellite rumors were fueled by the secrecy that surrounded Monday’s launch. Until Ofek was successfully on the way to orbit, officials here refused to comment. The Cabinet, which met Sunday, did not refer to the matter in the public statement issued by Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein.


Ne’eman himself had dismissed the reports as “more like science fiction tales and far from reality.”

Israel’s space scientists say the theoretical capacity exists to build and launch a high-altitude spy satellite, but the costs may be too much for Israel to bear.

A low-altitude orbiter would be cheaper, but of limited military value, the scientists say. It would cover only a narrow path, passing over the Middle East region twice a day, have a short lifetime and need to be replaced frequently.

An intelligence satellite at higher altitudes, set in a stationary orbit, could observe regional developments on a permanent, “real time” basis and would have a longer life span. But it would cost billions to build.

Scientists agree that the problem is financial, not technological. Israel is especially strong on the optical and computer image enhancement technologies required, they say.

According to some observers, Israel’s interest in a military satellite to spy on the Arab states may be an outcome of the Jonathan Pollard affair.

Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst employed by the U.S. Navy, is serving a life sentence in an American federal prison for spying on behalf of Israel.

He sold Israelis material that American intelligence gathered on the Arab countries but did not share with Israel. With Pollard out of business, the Israelis need the means to improve their own intelligence gathering.

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