Their eyes behold the nation

An exclusive glimpse into the base in the center of the country where Israel launches its satellites.

satelitte 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
satelitte 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 production.
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.