Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Israel Launches Spy Satellite Into Orbit

Israel successfully launched an advanced spy satellite into orbit giving it a sophisticated new tool in its efforts to collect intelligence on archenemy Iran and other regional adversaries. Israeli space officials said the Ofek-7 satellite can pick up even small objects from space, and that information will be shared with the United States. Ofek-7 was launched from a beach front air base south of Tel Aviv before dawn, the bright flame from its booster rocket lighting up the beach and ocean on a clear night and the roar of its engines heard more than 10 miles away. Senior officials from Israel's space program said the satellite will significantly improve Israel's intelligence capabilities, allowing it to view objects as small as an average TV set. "It's true that this helps the Iranian issue," Haim Eshed, chief of the Defense Ministry's space department, told Army Radio. "And it's clear above all else that this satellite is a very significant addition to the ability to gather intelligence." Israel considers Iran its main strategic threat, charging that Iran's nuclear program is designed to build atomic weapons. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said repeatedly that Israel should be "wiped off the map." Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.The new satellite is "one of the most sophisticated in the world" and will operate with the existing Ofek-5 to provide different viewing angles, said Yiftah Shapir, a military analyst at the Institute of National Security Studies. "This will enhance Israeli capabilities to monitor any threat from anywhere in the region, whether its Lebanon, Syria or Iran," he said. Ofek-5 is already past its projected life span, pressed into additional service with the failure two years ago of the launch of Ofek-6. "Ofek" is the Hebrew word for "Horizon." The satellite weighs 66 pounds and is 7.5 feet long, said the chairman of the Israel Space Agency, Isaac Ben-Israel. It is significantly lighter than the most advanced American satellites, which have similar capabilities but weigh at least three tons, he told Army Radio. Ofek-7 was launched 310 miles into the sky from an air force base at Palmachim, south of Tel Aviv, Army Radio said. Though the U.S. has its own spy satellites, Ben-Israel said it was in the interest of both Israel and the U.S. to exchange intelligence. "There is no country in the world, not us and not the Americans, that is able to obtain everything alone," he told Army Radio. "If you have something that they don't have and if they have something that you don't have, you make an exchange." The satellite can view objects as small as 28 inches long, Army Radio said. But Ben-Israel said the resolution was even better, saying the objects it can discern are "a few dozen centimeters" long. The Ofek-7 uses optical technology, meaning its viewing ability is limited by clouds and nonexistent at night, Shapir said. By 2010 Israel is expected to launch another spy satellite with radar technology that will overcome these limitations, he said. Ofek-5 and Ofek-7 are the only two Israeli spy satellites, Army Radio said. Israel also has two commercial satellites.