Spies in Space: The story
of Israel's Ofek Satellite Program
New Israeli intelligence
satellite ‘sending back great images’
By BARBARA OPALL-ROME September
25, 2016 15:02
How the successes of those who dare to dream can stagnate
under those who fail to follow through. If you’re looking
for a story that captures Israeli innovation, cunning and
can-do chutzpa, think spy satellites. Look to Ofek, the
Hebrew word for horizon. It’s all there in Israel’s military
satellite program, the newest of which – Ofek 11 – is
struggling to stabilize itself in space after its launch
earlier last week.
successfully into orbit by the country’s homemade Shavit
launcher, the newest and most advanced satellite is likely
to soldier on in space, but with limited lifespan and
ability to perform its high-resolution spy duties.
White-knuckled technicians and program managers toiling
around the clock at Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI)
ground control station near Ben-Gurion Airport are still
hoping for a favourable ending to the latest chapter still
unfolding. But like the chapters that have gone before, Ofek
11 represents the highs and lows of a story driven by
strategic need and enhanced by its share of diplomatic
intrigue. Conceived in secret, it’s a story of battling the
laws of physics; and struggling on a shoestring budget to
build rockets strong enough to loft satellites small enough
into retrograde orbit against Earth’s eastward spin.
a story of fortitude. How the euphoria of reaching space in
1988 was followed by bitter back-to-back failures that saw
two satellites swallowed by the sea. And how the heroes of
our story finagled their way back from the brink with the
1995 launch of Ofek-3, Israel’s first operational imaging
satellite whose progeny continue to fuel the regional power
status of the Jewish state.
countries can be great only if they dream big,” said former
president Shimon Peres. “With Ofek, we penetrated space and
Interviewed before the stroke that befell the pioneer of
Israel’s aerospace and defence industry, Peres said Israel’s
small size makes it uniquely positioned as a “centre of
excellence” for advanced research and development. “Our
advantage is creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who push the
boundaries of what was deemed impossible.” But with all due
respect to Israel’s senior statesman, this is where our tale
takes a cautionary turn.
the flip side of this story is one of untapped potential and
failure to leverage billions of dollars invested in military
space to assure commercial competitiveness on the global
Futron Corp. consistently ranks Israel eighth in an annual
competitiveness survey based on myriad criteria, including
government investment, national space policy, the ability to
attract financing and annual sales. In its latest Space
Competitive Index (SCI), we have dropped to number nine.
continues to be a leader in space technology, but has
limited commercial sales,” Futron reported in its first SCI
survey from 2008. The same holds true today.
Israeli technology is high quality and generally
cost-competitive, Israeli manufacturers have less global
scale than their counterparts,” Futron senior analyst
Jonathan Beland told the Jerusalem Post Magazine. But let’s
OUR STORY begins in the late 1970s
President Jimmy Carter was proving relentless in prodding
Israel and Egypt toward peace. In the run-up to Camp David,
the era of Israeli Air Force reconnaissance flights over
Sinai was about to end.
Treasure was a top-secret forum where US and Israeli
officials hashed out compensation to come from the 1978
accord. Among Israel’s requests: access to imagery from US
Americans didn’t even answer us; they ignored the request,”
recalls David Ivry, a retired major general who commanded
the Israel Air Force at the time. That’s when the indigenous
Israeli satellite program started to gain traction. Ivry
said. “We knew after the treaty was signed, we would be
obliged not to violate Egyptian sovereignty by overflying
their airspace as we used to do,” he added.
to the US slow-roll, Israel had been dabbling in military
satellite research. Rafael Ltd., then an R&D arm of the
Defence Ministry had the lead, but all three Israeli
government-owned firms were involved in aspects of rocketry.
case, Israel did not start from scratch with continuously
upgraded versions of the three-stage Shavit rocket that
launches Ofek into space.
our story turns to the courageous few who fought for funding
as fiercely as the technological hurdles blocking their way.
Chaim Eshed is a key protagonist
He’s now a
retired brigadier general, teacher and chairman of the
national committee for space R&D, but then a young Air Force
lieutenant colonel working technical issues for military
intelligence. Eshed ran the Ofek satellite part of the
program, subsequently serving for decades as Israel’s
military space czar.
key character in our story is Uzi Rubin. An aeronautical
engineer hailing from the IAI, Rubin headed the Shavit
launch effort for the Defence Ministry and went on to
establish Israel’s missile defence organization.
they toiled in secret – without the benefit of external
assistance or outside consultants – on tenuous funds,
working with guys named Moshe Bar- Lev, Aby Har-Even, Ilan
Porat and a few dozens of others involved in the effort.
was achieved in September 1988, when the Israeli-built
Shavit launched a test satellite named Oz into space. With
Oz – Hebrew for courage – Israel joined only seven other
nations at the time to launch satellites in space.
grew with a second success. Just 18 months after the first
Oz entered orbit, another Shavit launched Oz number 2,
another test satellite capable of communicating with its
ground-based operators, but not yet endowed with a payload
to capture images from space.
testament to their confidence of the horizon ahead, they
changed the name of the satellite program from Oz to Ofek.
But that horizon proved elusive with two failures that
with the Shavit rocket sent two Ofeks fully equipped with
imaging cameras plummeting into the sea.
day, Israel only acknowledges one failure – of Ofek 2 in
September 1994 – prior to the successful April 1995 launch
of Ofek 3. The name change offered a convenient cover for
public consumption, but those back-to-back failures put the
program on borrowed time.
courage and conviction would save them from another failure
first failure, there was tremendous pressure to cancel the
project. But we managed to continue,” recalls Ivry, who by
this time was chief executive of the Defence Ministry.
second failure, it was really a crisis. I managed to find a
small amount of money to keep the team and continue the
program… But I must say, if it failed yet again, we wouldn’t
have been able to proceed,” Ivry said.
estimates the penalty of launching from Israel westward –
over the Mediterranean rather than above its neighbours – at
nearly 40 percent. To make up for it all, the launcher had
to lift well above its weight class and Ofek satellites had
to weigh a lot less and be more manoeuvrable than those that
benefit from the initial velocity from Earth’s rotation.
counts, so much so that Israel had to develop new composite
materials and super performing substructures. Even the
screws holding it all together had to be hollow.
high-rise Tel Aviv sea-view flat, Eshed credited “the shadow
of the guillotine” for the engineering feats.
“We had no
choice. To do otherwise could be construed by our neighbours
as an act of belligerence that could trigger a war… We had
to struggle both ways with miniaturization of the satellite
and added thrust to our launchers. Under the shadow of the
guillotine, we can do wonders.”
interview at a popular Tel Aviv café, Rubin remembered the
intense pressure to perform.
out of money. We were desperate. And then the chief of my
financial department figured out an aggressive accounting
formula that basically allowed us to build the next launcher
on credit, something that was not and is still not
struggled to identify and fix failures with the launcher, a
separate team was racing to ready a replacement satellite.
caught in a vise; pressed by both ends to come up with the
launcher and satellite that would finally succeed,” said
Moshe Keret, former president and chief executive officer of
IAI, the state-owned firm that still builds the Shavit
launcher and all Israeli-made satellites.
more satellites on the shelf and no funds for new builds,
they scavenged for the components that would transform a
test satellite into an operationally capable vehicle.
“It was a
qualification model; not flightworthy. But we had to make it
work,” recalls Uzi Eilam, a retired brigadier general who
managed the entire effort as head of the Defence Ministry’s
research and development directorate.
overcoming the breakdown of tracking radars, and other
upsets too many to count, Israel managed to find a window
between freak rainstorms and Russian satellites orbiting
overhead for the ultimately successful April 1995 launch.
Ofek 3, Israel’s first orbital spy, finally made it to
he would never forget the reaction of then-prime minister
Yitzhak Rabin upon hearing the news.
[Eilam] and I went to brief Rabin, and when we told him the
satellite was going to take pictures, the first thing he
blurted out was, ‘What will Amr Moussa say?’ ... Rabin hated
his guts,” Rubin said, referring to Egypt’s foreign minister
at the time.
earlier high points, success proved short-lived, when a
January 1998 launch failure sent Ofek 4 plummeting into the
Mediterranean. After that setback, the program was again in
crisis; actually, on the brink of bankruptcy.
BUT A big part of this story is refusing to go down for the
where Ilan Biran enters in a big way. A retired major
general who hailed from Israel’s can-do Golani infantry
brigade, Biran succeeded Ivry as Ministry of Defence
managing director. When informed by his bosses that no more
funds would be approved for the program, what did he do? He
sold some 1000 MoD-owned apartments, from Safed in the
Galilee down to Eilat on the Red Sea, netting some 400
million shekels ($115.69 million), enough, he maintained, to
keep the program afloat for the coming years.
doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but for us, it was plenty
enough to stabilize the program,” Biran recalled.
of carrying on month-by-month or – in best cases –
year-by-year, we finally had the multi-year funding that
brought us additional electro-optic satellites and
especially the all-weather/ day-night SAR [synthetic
aperture radar] satellite, which at the time, was a kind of
dream,” he said.
went on to deploy that first radar satellite, dubbed TecSAR,
ahead of schedule in January 2008, thanks in large part to
Biran’s real estate sales and funding from India, according
to publications. Now known as Ofek 8, TecSAR was the first
MoD satellite to be launched abroad; part of a joint venture
agreement whose details remain under wraps to this day. The
satellite was launched in India from an Indian PSLV
same time, Biran threw Defence Ministry support into a new
commercial venture that joined IAI, the nation’s sole
satellite producer; Elbit’s Elop Electro-Optical Industries,
producer of the high-resolution payload; and a commercial US
firm then called Core Software Technology.
resulting company, ImageSat International (ISI), would own
and operate Ofek spinoff satellites for the commercial
market under a new line called Eros (Earth Remote
Observation System). Their first Eros reached orbit in
December 2000 aboard a Russian Start-1 rocket.
And it’s a
good thing that it did, because at the time, Israel’s
defence establishment was still struggling to upgrade its
Shavit launcher from the Ofek 4 failure while its sole pair
of eyes in the sky – Ofek 3 – was running out of fuel. For
nearly two years – from the eventual hero’s death of Ofek 3
until the successful May 2002 deployment of Ofek 5 – that
Eros satellite was Israel’s prime source of space-based
years that followed, Israel continued to put increasingly
higher performance satellites into space, while suffering
just one additional failure, that of Ofek 6 in 2004.
instead of reaping the commercial benefits of the ImageSat
venture – which aspired to a constellation of eight Eros
satellites – turf battles and competing agendas led to the
largest and most potentially damaging lawsuit in Israeli
finally resolved the issue in 2014 by acquiring full control
of ISI and settling claims out of court. Today, it has sole
authority over the Eros satellite sector and is busy
building a third Ofek-derived commercial satellite, dubbed
including Tal Inbar of the Fisher Institute for Strategic
Air and Space Studies lament the lost time spent battling
one another instead of growing Israel’s observation
industry was built to support strategic needs, but we all
knew it could never survive only on low volume orders from
the MoD. To be truly self-sustaining, we needed to export,”
barring a few notable exceptions – which include an imaging
payload to South Korea and joint scientific projects with
the French, Italian and European Space Agencies – export and
commercial orders failed to come. Industry titans at the
time were in such distress they went public with heretofore
closed-door appeals for state-level funding.
some successes, but on balance, it’s been a failure,” Haim
Rousso, former president of Elbit Elop, a publicly traded
firm that provides Israel’s electro-optical imaging
payloads, told an international conference here in early
“We Israelis, instead of relying
on chutzpah and innovation to cover our share, must be able
to tap into a significant, long-term, non-military budget,
not crumbs,” Rousso said.
the Israel Space Agency had been subsisting on a joke of a
budget; a mere $700,000 in 2000 that failed to breach the $1
million level until recently. After years of complaints and
threats to close down key parts of Israel’s satellite
sector, the Treasury, in 2012, authorized 200 million
shekels ($57.67 million) over two years.
Israel Space Agency’s budget stands at 78 million shekels
for 2017 and 86 million shekels for 2018.
Kaplan, a former Israel Space Agency director, welcomed the
budget boosts, yet cautioned: “If you don’t come out with a
satellite every two or three years, the line goes cold. Your
technology grows stale. And even if you manage to secure new
collaborative projects every four or five years, if they are
persistently plagued by funding flow, the market catches
But ours is a tale with an
IF YOU ask
Joseph Weiss, IAI president and chief executive, it’s
already a feel good story, and much like good wine, Weiss
says the story only gets better with time.
we’ve done since the Camp David days, when less than a
handful of countries could utter the word ‘space.’ We dived
into an empty pool and slowly and surely, without budget,
here we are: one of only eight or nine in the world who can
really deliver a turnkey project to design, develop,
manufacture, launch, operate and of course maintain the
satellite throughout its life.”
acknowledged many disappointments and missed opportunities.
Among them, failure to translate the performance of the
indigenous Shavit launcher into a business success; a failed
joint venture with state-owned Rafael to develop
micro-satellites weighing less than 120 kilograms; and
competitions lost in Turkey.
chief insists the firm’s earth imaging sector is not only
surviving, but profitable, due to steady work from the
Defence Ministry and occasional export orders. “Now I’m not
saying its billions. That will take some time. Perhaps we’ll
need some partners.”
Ofek 11, which was recently sent into space, two other
IAI-built imaging satellites – one of the French Space
Agency and another for the Italian Space Agency – are
planned for launch in 2017. The firm is also building, as
noted, the Eros C and at least two more successors to Ofek
11. As for new business, IAI is eyeing Brazil, Chile,
Columbia and Mexico, among others.
upbeat is Isaac Ben-Israel, a retired major general and
former head of the Defence Ministry’s Research and
Development Directorate who now serves as chairman of the
Israel Space Agency.
led the effort to vector for commercial and civil space the
approximately $ 80 million that the government invests
annually in its military space program. He maintains that
every dollar the government invests in space can yield fruit
15 times more than initial investment.
telling you that with $100 million investment, we can get to
$1.5 billion, which is about 1 percent of the global space
market. This year, the global space sector is about $200
billion all told – products and services – and all I want to
get is one percent.”
ESHED, our protagonist from the beginning of this tale,
refuses to stop dreaming big. He’s now pushing to develop a
world-leading sector for nano-satellites, each comprising
several units weighing one-to-10 kilograms programmed to
operate in small clusters or even huge swarms.
gathering inter-ministerial government support for a
national program called “Israel 70,” which aims to launch 70
such satellites built by 70 different local schools to mark
Israel’s 70th birthday in 2018.
swarm of 2000 nano-satellites working coherently together;
you can get a huge aperture telescope far larger than the
sum of their individual parts.”
acknowledges that this vision is yet not widely shared by
Weiss and other big players in Israeli industry.
insists Israeli industry salvation will not be achieved with
more and better of the same, but by a whole new class of
capabilities for government, commercial and scientific
has all the means of becoming the world’s fourth or fifth
leading power in space… We have the manpower, we have the
technology, we have 30 years of heritage, and that’s the
direction I’m trying to move us in,” said Eshed.
dream the dream as long as it does not contradict the laws
of physics. You may need to be courageous; even a little
crazy, but that’s what happened with Oz and Ofek. It’s the
The latest satellit "ofek 11"
Ofek-11, also known as Ofeq 11, is
part of the Ofeq family of reconnaissance satellites
designed and built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for
the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
was launched on 13 September 2016 from Palmachim Airbase in
Israel, two years after the launch of Ofek-10. It was
delivered using a Shavit launcher. Compared to its
predecessor, the new satellite features an improved version
of El-Op's "Jupiter High-Resolution Imaging System", with
resolution increased to 0.5 meter, and uses a new satellite
platform - OPSAT-3000 - which is a derivative of the
satellite bus used in TecSAR.
to reports the launch initially looked like a success, but
about 90 minutes later, engineers realized that while the
satellite had entered orbit, not all systems were
functioning or responding to instructions. However, after
several days of remote repairs, the satellite was
operational and taking high-quality pictures.
been reported that South Korea is considering utilizing the
satellite to obtain reconnaissance on North Korean
Research Torolf Karlsen