'Our satellites let us watch the entire Middle East'

Israel’s new spy satellite beams back its first photos…

…but Defense Ministry isn’t releasing the snaps. Week after being launched into orbit, Ofek-16 undergoes initial systems checks before being made operational

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs 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’s newest spy satellite began beaming back its first pictures on Monday night, a week after it was launched into orbit, the Defense Ministry said Tuesday.

“A week after its successful launch into space, engineering teams… activated the Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite’s cameras for the first time last night and downloaded initial photographs of incredible quality from the satellite to an Israeli Aerospace Industries control center in Yehud,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry did not release copies of these initial photographs to the public.

The satellite was launched in a joint operation by the Defense Ministry’s Space Department and the Israel Aerospace Industries. According to the Defense Ministry, since the launch teams from both organizations have been performing checks on the satellite to ensure it was operating correctly.

A digital rendering of Israel’s Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite in orbit around the Earth, which was released on July 14, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

“As part of this, they activated — in a gradual and controlled way — all of the systems and subsystems that make up the satellite. Upon completing the process, the satellite’s camera was successfully activated. In the coming weeks, the engineering teams will continue with the process of thorough testing and will prepare the satellite for operational use, in accordance with a pre-set protocol,” the ministry said.

The Ofek-16 satellite was launched into orbit in the predawn hours of last Monday morning. It was the latest reconnaissance satellite to be launched by Israel, coming four years after the previous one — the Ofek-11 — in 2016. Israeli defense officials have refused to explain the jump in the satellite series, from 11 directly to 16, quipping only that they “liked the name.”

“This is a landmark achievement – the result of a complex technological and operational process that reflects IAI’s capabilities in the field of space, and also highlights our partnership with other defense industries,” said Boaz Levy, the head of IAI’s Systems, Missiles and Space Group.

Last week, 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, last week.

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.

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.”

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

“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 in low-Earth orbit, similar to the other Ofek satellites.

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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