Israel strengthened its foothold in space on Monday by successfully launching a spy satellite that defense officials said provided the IDF "unprecedented operational capabilities." The Ofek (Horizon) 7 satellite lifted off from Palmahim Air Force Base atop a Shavit missile at 2:40 a.m. and began showing initial operations 55 minutes later, after achieving orbit. Officials said, however, that it would take several days of system tests before it would be declared operational. The Ofek 7's elliptical orbit reportedly takes it over Iran, Iraq and Syria every 90 minutes.
Analysis: Eyes in the sky
The successful launch came as a great relief for the defense establishment and particularly Israel Aerospace Industries, lead contractor of the Ofek project. In September 2004, the Ofek 6 satellite plummeted to the sea during its third booster stage.
Weighing 300 kilograms, the Ofek 7 will orbit at up to 600 kilometers above the earth. It has a projected four-year operational life and will downlink its images to an IAI-run ground station.
Officials said the launch was part of the Defense Ministry's multi-year work plan and in line with the defense establishment's "operational needs."
Israel has launched a new satellite approximately once every two and a half years since the late 1980s.
Ministry director-general Pinhas Buhris hailed the successful launch and said that as a former intelligence officer he knew "firsthand" the strategic contribution the Ofek satellites made to Israel's security.
While refusing to divulge its performance levels, defense officials said the Ofek 7 was by far the most advanced satellite Israel had ever launched. Officials said that it was superior to the Eros B satellite - sent up in April 2006 - which can spot images on the ground as small as 70 centimeters in size.
"With this launch we have improved Israel's operational capabilities by dozens of percent," said Brig.-Gen. Haim Eshed, director of Space Programming at the Defense Ministry's Research and Development Directorate. "This is due to the improvements made to the satellite and also since we now have better coverage in the skies."
In addition to the Eros B - a civilian-owned satellite used by the ministry on a contract basis - and the Amos 1 and 2 communication satellites, Israel currently operates the Ofek 5 spy satellite, successfully launched in May 2002. IAI plans to send the Amos 3 to orbit in the coming months.
The Ofek 5 was supposed to have a four-year life span but it continues to produce high-resolution pictures. Its telescopic camera was designed by Elbit Systems and has variable direction capability.