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'Our satellites let us watch the entire Middle East'

With Iran in its sights, Israel launches new spy satellite into orbit

Ofek-16, an ‘optoelectronic reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities,’ undergoing tests after entering orbit. Netanyahu: Boosts ability to tackle enemies ‘near and far’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israel's Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite takes off from central Israel on July 6, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
Israel's Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite takes off from central Israel on July 6, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Israel launched a new spy satellite into orbit from a launchpad in the center of the country early Monday morning, the Defense Ministry said.

“The Defense Ministry and Israel Aerospace Industries successfully launched into space the reconnaissance satellite ‘Ofek-16,’ which entered into its orbit,” the ministry said in a statement.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz hailed the launch of the Ofek-16 satellite as a “mighty achievement for the defense establishment, the defense industries in general and Israel Aerospace Industries in particular.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the successful launch “very much increases our ability to act against Israel’s enemies, near and far alike. It greatly expands our ability to act on land, at sea, in the air and also in space.”

Israel is one of a small number of countries in the world that operate reconnaissance satellites, giving it advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities. As of April, this cadre included Iran, which successfully launched a spy satellite into orbit after years of failed attempts.

“Our network of satellites lets us watch the entire Middle East — and even a bit more than that,” said Shlomi Sudari, the head of IAI’s space program.

The reconnaissance satellite was fired into space at 4 a.m. using a Shavit launch vehicle that took off from a launchpad in the Palmachim air base in central Israel, the ministry said.

The Ofek-16 is an “optoelectronic reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities,” the ministry said. It is the latest satellite in the Ofek series to be launched into space, following the Ofek-11, which entered orbit in 2016.

According to Sudari, the Ofek-16 is the “brother” of the Ofek-11, containing many of the same capabilities, along with a few “light improvements, in terms of precision.” Defense Ministry officials refused to comment on the jump in the name, from Ofek-11 to Ofek-16.

“The Ofek-16 is highly advanced, including breakthrough ‘blue and white’ technology that serves our defense interests,” Sudari said, using a term that refers to the colors of the Israeli flag to signify domestically produced capabilities.

Though the main function of the new spy satellite will likely be monitoring Iran and developments in its nuclear and missile programs, defense officials denied any symbolism in conducting the launch amid growing reports that Israel was responsible for a number of recent explosions in the Islamic Republic, including one at a uranium enrichment facility and another at a missile production plant.

“The timing was planned far in advance,” Sudari said.

Sudari said the Ofek-16 would operate on a low-Earth orbit, similar to the other Ofek satellites.

“Under the original launch plan, the [Ofek-16] satellite entered orbit around the Earth and began to beam back data,” the Defense Ministry said early on Monday.

Israel’s Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite is seen before it was launched from central Israel on July 6, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Engineers from the ministry and Israel Aerospace Industries began performing a series of tests to ensure that the satellite was operating correctly. The ministry said these checks would continue “until the satellite enters full operation shortly.”

Amnon Hariri, the head of the Defense Ministry’s Space Department, said, beaming, that the launch went off with no hiccups.

Once operational, the satellite will be operated by the Israel Defense Forces’ Unit 9900, a visual intelligence detachment that controls all of the nation’s spy satellites.

“The State of Israel’s technological and intelligence superiority is the cornerstone of its security,” Defense Minister Gantz wrote on Twitter. “We’ll continue to strengthen and fortify Israel’s strength on every front and every place.”

This was the first launch of an Israeli spy satellite into space since the Ofek-11 in September 2016. The Ofek-11 experienced initial technical issues shortly after launch, but engineers on the ground were able to stabilize it and get it working. According to the Defense Ministry, there were no such issues with the Ofek-16.

Last year, Israel also put the Amos-17 communications satellite into orbit, using a SpaceX rocket that was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Israel launched its first satellite, the Ofek-1, into space in 1988, footage of which was released by the Defense Ministry in 2018.

It was not until seven years later, in 1995, that Israel launched a reconnaissance satellite into space capable of photographing the Earth.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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