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Israel’s newest spy satellite declared operational

Three months after launch, control of the state-of-the-art reconnaissance satellite is handed over from Defense Ministry to IDF

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

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

Israel’s newest spy satellite was declared operational on Sunday, three months after it was launched into orbit from central Israel, the Defense Ministry said.

Control of the electro-optical Ofek-16 satellite was therefore handed over from the ministry to the Israel Defense Forces’s visual intelligence Unit 9900, which will operate it going forward.

“Three months after its successful launch into space, and following a rigorous and pre-planned checking process, today the Space Administration in the Directorate of Defense Research and Development in the Defense Ministry and the Israeli Aerospace Industries completed the Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite’s preparations for operational use in space,” the Defense Ministry said.

The reconnaissance satellite was launched into space on July 6 using a Shavit launch vehicle that took off from a launchpad in the Palmachim air base in central Israel. In the three months since then, engineers in the Defense Ministry, IDF and various defense contractors have worked to ensure that it was operating properly. In late August, the ministry released photographs taken by the satellite showing ancient ruins in the central Syrian city of Palmyra.

A photograph of the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra, Syria, taken by Israel’s Ofek 16 spy satellite, which was released by the Defense Ministry on August 24, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

According to Israeli officials, the Ofek-16 has slightly more powerful capabilities than its forebear, the Ofek-11, which was launched into orbit in 2018.

The Ofek-16 was handed over to the IDF’s Unit 9900 in a small ceremony in accordance with coronavirus restrictions, the Defense Ministry said.

From left, the head of the Space and Satellite Administration in the Defense Ministry, Amnon Harrari; the commander of Military Intelligence’s Unit 9900; Israeli Aerospace Industries Executive Vice President Boaz Levy; manager of the IAI Space Division, Shlomi Sudri; and another commander in Unit 9900, in a ceremony marking the handover of the Ofek-16 satellite on October 4, 2020. (Alex Poli/IAI)

The camera on the satellite was developed in a joint project by the ministry’s DDR&D, known by the Hebrew acronym MAFAT, and the Elbit Systems defense contractor.

According to the Defense Ministry, the camera “is of a much higher quality, with capability-to-weight ratios that are better than anything on the market.”

The satellite itself was manufactured by IAI, and the launcher missile was produced by the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems contractor.

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, that cadre included Iran, which successfully launched a spy satellite into orbit after years of failed attempts.

Israel launched its first satellite, 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.

“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, after the Ofek-16 launch in July.

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