This Week in History: Israel launches into space

Space program, which has suffered its share of setbacks, allowed Israel to join exclusive club of nations capable of launching satellites into space.

ofek 9 launching 311 (photo credit: Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI))
ofek 9 launching 311
(photo credit: Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI))
On September 19, 1988, Israel joined an exclusive club of nations capable of launching satellites into space. A program that has suffered nearly as many failures as it has enjoyed successes, Israel’s space launches nonetheless put it at the forefront of civilian, military and intelligence capabilities vital to its security needs to this day.
The Israeli space program was first launched in 1963 with the establishment of the National Committee for Space Research. Although the program would not be asked to build real-world space launching capabilities for another 20 years, the institute helped build a community of scientists and engineers that would later provide Israel with the foundations and technical know-how necessary to take the next step.
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In 1983, then-defense minister Moshe Arens brought about a government decision to officially establish an operational space program, the Israel Space Agency. Having already developed ballistic missile capabilities, the infrastructure for space launches was already in place. The need for the program, Arens recognized, was military. Israel needed more advanced optical reconnaissance capabilities vis-à-vis the enemy states in the region.
The cost and little-understood benefit prompted many in the government and military establishment to oppose the development of a domestic satellite program, but Arens was determined, and managed to push the project forward.
It was just five years until Israel successfully launched its first satellite into orbit. On September 19, 1983, a domestically produced Shavit three-stage rocket carried the Ofek 1 satellite into a low-earth orbit. The first satellite carried no optics equipment but was nonetheless a watershed moment for the Israeli space program as it established the capability to launch an object into orbit.
For several reasons, the Israeli space program faced very unique challenges to orbital launches. One of those challenges was geographic. Because Israel is surrounded by Arab states on all but its western border, it decided it must launch any sensitive satellite westward to avoid rocket stages or sensitive on-board technical components from falling into enemy hands should a launch fail.
Therefore, there was – and is – only one possible trajectory for launching objects into space – westward over the Mediterranean Sea. In contrast, for a very simple reason, the direction of the earth’s rotation, every other space program in the world launched its satellites eastward. By launching on an eastward trajectory, a space launch takes advantage of the earth’s rotation for additional momentum. Israel therefore, needed to compensate in its launches for the necessity of launching in the opposite direction that the earth spins.
Israeli westward launches travel just south of Crete, pass south of Tunis and through the Straits of Gibraltar.
By launching westward, Israeli rockets require more power to reach orbit. In order to compensate, satellites were designed to be lighter and smaller than any other in the world, something that put it at an advantage years down the road.
But although the retrograde launch necessity is most costly and less efficient than those of countries that can launch eastward, the orbit reached in a westward launch, perhaps in a lucky accident of geography, puts Israeli satellites in an orbit that is advantageous for other reasons.
The low-earth orbit achieved from the westward launch allows for optimal daylight coverage of Israel’s main objective region, the Middle East. But the 36-degree low-earth orbit is problematic in another sense, that it detunes regularly. But by placing a number of satellites in orbit at the same time, that problem can be easily mitigated. All in all, the necessity of a westward launch trajectory is advantageous for Israel.
It would be another seven years after Ofek 1 before a fully functioning optical surveillance satellite would be successfully launched. Ofek 2 was launched in 1990, but it too did not carry any camera equipment. At least two subsequent satellites experienced launch failure.
In 1995, the first successful launch of a satellite with optical transmission capabilities, Ofek 3, entered into orbit. Although a number of subsequent launches also failed in their launch phases, it was from that point that Israel officially began its permanent presence in space, with military and civilian surveillance and communications capabilities that put it at the forefront of space technology.
The military and intelligence advantage of proprietary satellite surveillance cannot be underestimated, especially for a country at war since its inception.
Israel’s space program today still uses the same family of Shavit rockets to propel its satellites into orbit. The most recent launch, Ofek 9, blasted into space from the Palmachim Air Force Base in June 2010. Generations beyond the Ofek 1 launch 22 years earlier, Ofek 9’s imaging was reported by the Christian Science Monitor to have resolution of better than 70cm and a pointing accuracy of 20 meters, capabilities that it suggested enable Israel to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.