On Tuesday, Sept. 13 at exactly 5:34 pm, the countdown at the control center of Israeli Aerospace Industries ended and a Shavit 2 rocket bore Israel’s Ofek 11 spy satellite aloft from the Palmachim air force base on its way to earth orbit.
The launch initially looked like a success, but about 90 minutes later, engineers realized that while the satellite had entered orbit, not all systems were functioning or responding to instructions.
It is still difficult to determine the extent to which Ofek 11 systems are not functioning. Efforts by the IAI, which was selected to build and launch the Ofek series, are continuing.
Israel is one of 12 countries able to independently launch satellites into space. Because of geographic, military and other limitations, its satellites can only be launched in a westward direction over the Mediterranean Sea and against the direction of earth’s rotation. Such launches demand an extra-powerful rocket, such as Shavit 2, and an extra light payload, like Ofek.
Ofek 1, the first in the series was launched in 1988, followed by Ofek 2 in 1990. Both were designed to test the design. The country’s first spy satellite, Ofek 3, went into orbit in 1995, and was followed by Ofek 5 in 2002, Ofek 7 in 2007 and Ofek 9 in 2010.
Ofek 10, launched in 2014, was equipped with synthetic aperture radar that provided 3D images of objects in almost any type of weather, as well as cameras with a resolution of about 70 megapixels, capable of identifying the license plates of any car on the road.
In general, Israeli satellites have functioned efficiently once in orbit. But there were some failures – the most prominent being Ofek 4, Ofek 6 and the Amos 6 communications satellite, that was destroyed last month by an explosion on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
If the Ofek 11 mission fails, it will not only mean hundreds of millions of dollars down the drain, but also indirect losses, incurred by the need to close airspace and territorial waters for the launch, as well as the wasted efforts of deploying fighter and reconnaissance planes as accompaniments and placing medical, rescue and hazardous material disposal units on alert.
The primary users of Israel’s spy satellites are IDF intelligence’s 9900 unit, which collects visual intelligence (VISINT), analyzes satellite imagery and locates intelligence for operations; the IDF’s 8200 unit, which develops and operates signal intelligence (SIGINT) and other systems; and special operations networks including the “Sayeret Matkal” unit, air force and navy intelligence, the country’s security and intelligence services, and the Foreign Ministry.
The lack of a satellite, an eye in the sky, to monitor vital points in the Middle East – such as the Sinai Peninsula, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Hizballah’s weapons supply routes, and Islamic State movements and positions — would divest Israel of a major strategic resource for supporting national intelligence and air force operations.