Some time after 10 p.m. on June 22 last year, a missile took off from the Palmahim Air Force Base north of Ashdod. Within minutes the first booster separated somewhere off the coast of Tunisia. A few minutes later, another component fell into the Mediterranean, not far from Algeria.
The missile, Israel’s largest, was the Shavit. On its top was the IDF’s newest and most sophisticated Ofek 9 spy satellite. After another few tense moments, the satellite was finally delivered into orbit in space where it hovers, several hundred kilometers above Earth, completing an orbit once every 90 minutes and providing Israel with another eye in the sky.
Back on the ground, Lt.-Col. P. was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. As commander of the Israeli Air Force’s Missile Test Unit – known by its Hebrew acronym Yanat – it was P.’s job to prepare for the launch, oversee it and ultimately ensure that the satellite reached space.
“The day of the launch is extremely tense,” he says on the sidelines of an exclusive and rare tour of the new missile launch site. “I eat little that day and there are usually about 200 people, including the country’s top leadership, watching. The silence in the minutes before the launch is so tense that it can be cut by a knife.” In the new command center recently inaugurated inside the city-like Palmahim Air Force Base, there are hundreds of computer screens with various side rooms for different applications. Lt.-Col. P. pauses inside one room and points to what looks like an old metal recording device.
“See that red switch?” he asks. “That is the abort button.”
There are several reasons why Israel would abort a satellite or missile
launch, but the main one is a deviation of the missile and the
possibility that it will land in a populated area. In general, Israel
launches to the west over the Mediterranean Sea so it will not have to
deal with potential war if one of its missiles accidentally crashes over
Iran or Iraq. This means, though, that it is launching against the
rotation of the earth, and this requires a larger missile. This, in
turn, requires more fuel which quickly translates into more money.
And there have been failures. In 2002, Israel launched the Ofek 6 into
space from Palmahim. Minutes after launch, the Shavit launcher
encountered a failure and crashed into the sea, destroying the satellite
payload with it.
This is why the pressure during launch day runs high and why, in simpler
terms, P.’s job can be summarized as the “master of ceremonies of
Israel’s most expensive event” – a satellite launch which can cost the
country hundreds of millions of shekels.
The Yanat is Israel’s version of Cape Kennedy and is slowly turning into
a state-of-the-art satellite launch site, albeit on an Israeli level.
The first difference is obviously the size, making it tiny compared to
NASA’s launch pad in Florida. The second difference is the purpose of
Israel’s missile launches. Unlike NASA, which is exploring outer space,
the Yanat’s purpose is purely military – to launch satellites and test
new missiles like the Arrow-3, which is currently under development by
Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
The site was designated years ago as the IDF’s main missile test center,
but over the years, and as Israel became a leading satellite developer,
the Defense Ministry made the decision to invest tens of millions of
dollars in the necessary infrastructure to create a site worthy of
Israel’s lofty status as member in the club of countries with
independent space launching capabilities.
Behind the large hall with the massive screens is a large room similar
to a movie theater, seperated from the hall by a wall of glass. This is
where the prime minister, defense minister and other dignitaries sit
during the launches and the missile tests.
Some have referred to this as “Golda’s window,” named after former prime
minister Gold Meir, who used to view classified tests from behind a
window. It is not the same window, nor is it in the same place, but the
name stuck, and conveys the importance of what the spectators are
privileged to watch.
The base’s location is not lacking problems.
Located south is the Ashdod Port, whose cranes are visible from the roof
of the new command center. To the north, one can see the Nahal Sorek
research nuclear reactor. When there is a launch, the Navy ensures that
the path of the missile is clear, so that if debris falls, it does not
land near or on top of some merchant ship traversing the Mediterranean.
For that reason, Lt.- Col. P. sets up a so-called “window of
opportunity” for the launch and not a set time.
“The navy plays an important role in helping us determine when the right
time is for the launch,” he explains. “We wait to see when the path
opens up since we cannot control foreign ships and when we have the
opportunity, we launch.”
Israel launched its first satellite called the Ofek 1 on September 19,
1988, and it was then that the Jewish state gained membership in the
exclusive club of nations that can independently launch their own
satellites. Apart from Israel and seven other countries with this
capability – the United States, Russia, France, Japan, China, India and
the United Kingdom – a new member joined in 2009: Iran.
In addition to the Ofek 9, the Ofek satellites are developed and
manufactured by IAI – Israel currently has in space the Ofek 5, the Ofek
7 and the advanced TecSar satellite which is one of a handful in the
world that uses advanced radar technology instead of a camera. This
enables it to create highresolution images of objects on the ground in
any weather conditions and the technology can even “see” through some
rooftops that are not made of concrete.
Satellites can be used for a wide range of missions – from tracking
developments in Iran’s nuclear program to transmitting communications
and images to troops operating behind e n e m y l i n e s . They are a l
s o used to h e l p the IDF build target banks in Gaza and Lebanon. New
challenges are also on the horizon with the ongoing upheaval in the
Middle East and particularly the possibility that Egypt will one day
turn again into Israel’s enemy.
The need for accurate, immediate and reliable intelligence has never been greater.
“We are involved in every major operation,” explains Lt.-Col. Oren, head
of the IAF’s Satellite Division. “It is clear to us that Israel
currently enjoys a strategic edge in the region when it comes to
satellites, but we are aware of efforts in nearby countries and are
following them very closely.”
While talking in what seems like code, Oren is referring to Iran,
currently Israel’s greatest adversary and also the country developing a
nuclear weapon that could become an existential threat for Israel.
In 2009, Iran launched the Omid, a tiny satellite that did not have any
military applications but proved that the Islamic Republic has the
ability to reach space. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently announced
plans to launch a number of new satellites over the coming year.
The IDF also receives services from the Eros A and Eros B satellites made by IAI and owned by Israel Space Industries.
The Ofek’s east-to-west orbit at an altitude of 600 kilometers is aimed
at providing optimal daylight coverage of the Middle East. In comparison
to US satellites, which cycle around Earth only a few times per day,
the Ofek, according to foreign reports, makes more than six passes
daily. The satellites have also been designed to work in
“constellation,” which means that they can ensure that an area under
surveillance is never left unwatched.
The coming years are critical for Israel as it seeks to continue to
retain its status as a world leader in satellite development and
In late 2010, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu approved an ambitious
plan to turn Israel into a satellite superpower with the aim of
increasing sales of Israeli space platforms to nearly $8 billion a year.
The plan, put together by the Israel Space Agency and the Defense
Ministry’s Space Directorate run by Col. (res.) Haim Eshed, calls for
the government to annually increase support for space research and
development by several hundred million shekels. This investment would
focus on new platforms – primarily Israel’s niche market in “mini
satellites” – intended to yield billions in sales.
The idea is to use the increase in civilian exports to ultimately
benefit the defense establishment, which would gain from the research
and development in new systems. In addition to launching new satellites –
there are plans to launch a new reconnaissance and communications
satellite in the coming two years – the IAF is also looking into new
ways to control and decipher all of the information provided by the
satellites currently in orbit.
At present, a vast majority of the footage is reviewed by soldiers. The
IAF is working together with leading Israeli defense industries to
create algorithms and programs that can decipher satellite footage and
classify it accordingly. If, for example, a satellite takes photos of
missile launchers in Lebanon, the program will automatically identify
the launchers and catalog them.
“It is not enough to collect intelligence; you also to know how to utilize the information,” Lt.-Col. Oren explains.
Strolling on the sand dunes near Yanat, located along the Palmahim beach
– coincidentaly one of Israel’s most precious nature reserves – one can
almost forget that they are inside an Air Force base that was built not
just to launch satellites into space but also to house combat aircraft
that attack the targets detected and identified by the satellites.
Israel faces an uncertain future. Its satellites are supposed to make it a more secure one.