Israel’s Ofek 16 satellite: An eye in the sky over Iran

Satellite spy joins family of reconnaissance devices that constantly monitor threats like Iran and more.

THE OFEK 16 satellite is shot into space from a site in center of the country on Monday. (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
THE OFEK 16 satellite is shot into space from a site in center of the country on Monday.
(photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
The launch of Israel’s latest spy satellite, the Ofek 16, into the deep unknown on Monday morning marked a significant military success for the Jewish state, a country deep in crisis – both politically and socioeconomically.
Taking off from Palmahim air base in the center of the country using a Shavit launcher – which according to foreign reports is used to launch Jericho ballistic missiles – the Ofek 16 successfully made it into orbit and is expected to send back its first high-resolution pictures by next week.
The successful launch comes at a time when Israel is still reeling from the coronavirus, deep into a second wave of the deadly virus with more than a 1,000 new confirmed cases a day and close to 350 deaths leading the country to once again impose restrictions and lockdowns in certain communities.
The launch also comes at a time where tensions between Israel and Iran are heading spaceward, a number of mysterious explosions have targeted Tehran’s missile and nuclear project, and Iran has been accused of targeting Israel’s water supply in a cyberattack, as well as planning various terrorist attacks targeting Jewish and Israeli targets across the world.
But the economic crisis stemming from the impact of the novel virus has led to a significant rise in unemployment, and Israel’s defense sector is not immune. Israel Aerospace Industries, the prime contractor for the satellite, is set to lay off around 900 workers. Though the layoffs will be primarily in the company’s aviation department, the satellite industry is concerned.
Like the Israel Air Force, the satellite industry is a key component of the Jewish state’s strategic military capabilities. They are the real “eye in the sky,” keeping a close watch on Israel’s enemies 24/7 from afar.
And that is why “the project was marked as a priority,” IAI Space Division general manager Shlomi Sudri and other officials said.
Sudri told The Jerusalem Post that despite the spread of COVID-19, while several team members working on the project entered precautionary quarantine, none got sick.
“The teams working on it worked in capsule systems and kept to the regulations including keeping proper distance,” he said, adding that the workplace where the satellite is built is very hygienic in general.
Israel’s satellite program, which has been active since 1988, “significantly enhances the intelligence capabilities of the  State of Israel, due to the groundbreaking technology and capabilities developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and additional partner industries,” the Defense Ministry said following the launch.
The fact that Israel is one of 13 countries with satellite launching capabilities is not a given. Any space launch can face an endless list of catastrophic problems, something the space industry, including Israel’s, is, unfortunately, more than familiar with.
The launch alone is in itself a great achievement – it is carried out to the west, against the rotation of the Earth, so that its trajectory takes it out over the Mediterranean Sea to avoid enemy territory during the launch period.
As a result of launching westward, Ofek satellites operate in retrograde orbits and decrease the launcher’s payload capacity, as it requires more thrust to place the satellite into orbit compared to it flying eastwards.
“Usually a satellite is launched from the direction of the rotation of the Earth to use the energy of the rotation but we have to do it in an opposite way, so we have a certain limitation of weight and height,” Sudri said, adding that another challenge of launching such an advanced satellite is to get it to the exact spot needed in space by means of advanced algorithms and other technology.
The technology, as well as the Shavit launcher, which according to foreign reports launches the Jericho ballistic missile and can place up to 380 kg. into orbit, is not something Israel wants falling into enemy hands. The electro-optical reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities is also a feat of engineering, which would be a gem of intelligence should it be obtained by countries like Iran, and a disaster for Israel.
But, Sudri said, “we make sure that it won’t fall into enemy hands.”
Once operational, the IDF’s Intelligence Unit 9900 will be responsible for the Ofek 16. And like other satellites launched by Israel (the actual number is kept classified), it will be used to monitor threats facing Israel.
The head of Space and Satellite Administration in the Defense Ministry, Amnon Harari, told reporters Monday that the Earth-observing satellite will be “used to monitor threats facing the State of Israel that are sometimes far away and immediate, so they require constant monitoring.”
Though Israel does not disclose the number of defense satellites it has in orbit, according to foreign reports, the Ofek 16 mission is the ninth satellite to have reached orbit out of a total of 11 orbital launches attempted.
Israel’s space program began in 1988, according to the SpaceNews website, and the first successful orbital launch was in April 1995 with the Ofek 3, followed by the Ofek 4 in 1998, the Ofek 5 in 2002, the Ofek 6 in 2004, the Ofek 7 in 2007, the Ofek 9 in 2010, Ofek 10 in 2014, the Ofek 11 in 2016 and now the Ofek 16.
The only known launch failures were the Ofek 4 and Ofek 6.
There are a number of satellites still operational, including the Ofek 5, but the more recent satellites use more advanced payloads to capture areas of interest.
The Ofek 10 uses an SAR (synthetic-aperture radar) system to capture pictures and distinguish between objects half a meter in size. The payload can work in all weather conditions and has both day and night photography capabilities.
The Ofek 11, which overcame initial difficulties shortly after it was launched, features an improved imaging system, using, according to foreign reports, a new satellite platform – the OPSAT 3000 -– which according to the IAI’s website provides high-resolution image quality, “agility, throughput, multimode imaging capability, geo-location accuracy” and more.
While Ofek 16 is similar to Ofek 11 in terms of capabilities, there have been precise improvements that will give maximum operational output.  But, Sudri explained, there are major improvements from the previous satellites, mainly in coverage and resolution.
The Ofek 16 carries Elbit’s electro-optic, high-resolution camera, which can photograph 15 sq. km. with each shot at a resolution of 50 cm. from an altitude of 600 km.
That breakthrough technology, and the fact that it flies in a low Earth orbit of some 400-500 km. from the Earth, “allows the satellite to give the intelligence picture needed for Israel,” Sudri said.
Hariri hinted that the range of blue-and-white satellites in orbit gives the Jewish state almost constant coverage of enemy territory. “You can assume that once you have more than one satellite in parallel in the sky, you achieve better visit times over the targets of interest,” he said.
Though Iran and its nuclear and missile projects are of top concern for Israel, this advanced satellite will likely monitor much more than that. It will likely monitor Iran’s malign activity throughout the Middle East – including the continued trafficking of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria as well as to the Houthi militia in Yemen.
The Ofek 16 satellite, which is already sending engineers messages of proper functioning, will join the other satellites already keeping tabs on Iran and other adversaries.
And with Iran plowing ahead, the Defense Ministry, IAI and other Israeli defense companies are looking to further improve Israel’s family of defense satellites and have already developed an advanced concept for the next Ofek, Sudri said.
“We hope to make it a reality in less than five years,” he said. “And maybe even Beresheet 2.”