Israel successfully places surveillance satellite into orbit

A Shavit 2 launcher takes off from Israel on Monday carrying the Ofeq 16 spy satellite. Credit: Israel Ministry of Defense

For the first time in nearly four years, a rocket successfully shot into orbit from Israel on Monday with a military reconnaissance satellite to shore up the country’s space-based capability to surveil Iran and other adversaries.

A Shavit 2 launcher carried the Ofek 16 Earth-imaging satellite into orbit from the Palmachim air base in central Israel. The three-stage rocket lifted off at 0100 GMT Monday (9 p.m. EDT Sunday), or at 4 a.m. local time in Israel, according to the Israel Ministry of Defense.

“The satellite began to orbit around Earth and to transmit data, in accordance with original launch plans,” the defense ministry said in a statement.

“This is another extraordinary achievement for the defense establishment, for the defense industries as a whole, and for Israel Aerospace Industries in particular,” said Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister.

Israel Aerospace Industries is prime contractor for the Shavit 2 launcher, and the company built the Ofek 16 spacecraft. Israeli defense contractors Elbit Systems and Rafael also contributed to the mission.

Amnon Harari, head of the space administration at the Israel Ministry of Defense, said in a statement that the Ofek 16 satellite is “an addition to the current space assets of the ministry of defense, and it will serve to bring necessary intelligence that will allow us to monitor any enemies that we are facing from far away to nearby regions.”

Like previous Israeli satellite launches, the Shavit 2 rocket arced toward the west from the Palmachim air base, located south of Tel Aviv, to fly over the Mediterranean Sea. The unusual retrograde trajectory ensures debris from the rocket does not fall over populated parts of Israel and neighboring countries.

After firings by the Shavit 2’s first and second stage motors, the rocket coasted to the proper altitude for injection of the Ofek 16 satellite into orbit. The Shavit 2’s upper stage spun up to stabilize the rocket during the third stage burn, which accelerated the Ofek 16 satellite to orbital velocity.

Israeli officials did not release orbital parameters for the Ofek 16 satellite, but previous Shavit launches deployed their payloads into orbits several hundred miles above Earth with inclinations of around 143 degrees. Satellites in such retrograde orbits fly around Earth in the opposite direction of the planet’s rotation.

“Ofek 16 is an advanced electro-optical satellite with Israeli advanced technology,” said Shlomi Sudri, general manager of IAI’s space division. “The satellite is now going around Earth and transmitting health monitoring to the ground station at IAI, and from now IAI engineers along with (defense ministry) engineers will manage to test it in orbit prior to delivering it to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces).

The launch of Ofek 16 was not publicly announced ahead of time, but the Israel Ministry of Defense released a video after the launch showing views of the spacecraft during preparations for the mission. The views are the first such images of an Israeli spy satellite.

The Ofek 16 spacecraft. Credit: Israel Ministry of Defense

Ofek 16 is the latest in a series of military-operated spy satellites launched by Israel since 1988. Monday’s launch was the 11th flight of a Shavit rocket, and nine of the rocket flights have been successful.

“We do not let go of our security efforts for a moment,” tweeted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The success of the Ofek 16 satellite greatly increases our capabilities to work against Israeli enemies, close enemies and distant enemies alike. It greatly expands our capabilities to operate at sea, land, air and space.”

The launch of Ofek 16 marked the first launch of a satellite aboard an Israeli rocket since September 2016, when Israel sent the Ofek 11 spacecraft into orbit. It was the fourth launch of an Israeli satellite on a domestically-produced rocket since 2010.

Israeli officials did not explain the reason for the jump in names from Ofek 11 to Ofek 16. Ofek means “horizon” in Hebrew.

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