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Israel launches new spy satellite into orbit

Jerusalem24 – Israel successfully launched yesterday spy satellite Ofek-13 from the Palmachim Airbase south of Tel Aviv, the same airbase used to test-launch propulsion rockets and suspected nuclear payloads.

According to Haaretz, the satellite was launched in a westward trajectory over the Mediterranean Sea (rather than the typical eastward launch trajectory for space-bound objects, which makes use of the earth’s rotational speed) in order to avoid sensitive technologies “falling into the hands of hostile Middle East neighbors” in case of a malfunction.

Visibility under the clouds

According to a press release by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Ofek-13 boasts “unique radar observation” enabling intelligence collection “in any weather and conditions of visibility”, with “the utmost advanced abilities at the peak of global technology.”

Ofek-13 belongs to a class of satellite with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology, providing real-time visibility both day and night, and through cloud cover.

Defense Minister Yoav Galant, who was present during the launch which took place shortly after 2 AM on Wednesday, said: “Israel has already proved its diverse space capabilities many times and is one of very few countries to possess such capabilities. We will continue to prove that even the sky isn’t the limit for the Israeli defense establishment.”

Within hours of the launch, the satellite had begun transmitting data, according to the press release. Once it completes a series of inspections and tests and is deemed fully operational, the Ministry of Defense will officially hand it over to the Israeli army’s Unit 9900.

Who are Unit 9900?

The ‘Unit 9900: Terrain Analysis, Accurate Mapping, Visual Collection and Interpretation Agency’ is one of three main units forming Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate. According to the Israeli military, the unit is exclusively formed of volunteers who are all on the autism spectrum and “gifted with an incredible ability to analyze, interpret, and understand satellite images and maps.”

According to Forbes, the unit is “very tech-heavy, with graduates gaining knowledge in location-based technologies like GPS, experience in machine vision, photo analysis, and even in Cyber, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality.”

The unit has developed simulators and 3D mapping capabilities which “are able to virtually go floor by floor and room by room” before the military enters a building. It also operates a drone unit since 2020.

Soldiers and an officer in the Unit 9900 [Source: Israeli army]

Who owns the world’s reconnaissance satellites?

Israel launched Ofek-1, its first satellite, into orbit in 1988. Two iterations and seven years later, it launched its first spy satellite Ofek-3 in 1995.

State-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), founded by former Israeli president Shimon Peres, was the main contractor on the Ofek-13 project led by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, in coordination with various military agencies including Unit 9900.

The latest of the 13 satellites in the Ofek series have been alternatively developed with Elta Systems (IAI’s subsidiary), Elbit Systems, or – in the case of Ofek-13 – the state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Tomer companies.

Israel is one of eight countries worldwide known to make use of spy satellites, along with the United States, China, Russia, Turkey, France, Iran, and the United Kingdom.

Israel possesses seven of the around 100 known spy satellites in orbit.

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