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Analysis: Israeli observation and reconnaissance satellites: An eye in the sky

Business analyst Karine Gallula, who has vast experience in the satellite market, explains to JOL readers how Israel has become one of the countries with the largest and most advanced space programs.
Israel Aerospace Industries working on Ofek-6 Photo Credit: Israel Aerospace Industries/Channel 2 News

Earth observation and reconnaissance satellites are intended to provide imagery of the earth and can be used for civil and military purposes. The use of observation satellites can vary a lot from weather, atmospheric analyzing, natural resources or engineering. But they can also be used for sensitive subjects such as defense and intelligence. Most of these satellites are built and launched by governments under specific national space agency’s budgets and more rarely, by commercial companies.

According to the latest figures released in 2015, there were 163 Earth observation satellites that were launched between 2006 and 2015, generating global manufacturing revenue of $18.4 billion. However, in the meantime, the commercial revenue from observation and reconnaissance satellites remains very low as most of these satellites are used for scientific or military purposes. The investment from various governments reached a high of $10 billion in 2015 alone, which proves that observation is a hot subject for many countries. It is estimated that the investment and the number of satellites launched for satellite observation will increase very rapidly. These satellites should be used mainly for scientific purposes such as analyzing climate change or helping developing countries grow.

Israel has been since the 1980s a very dynamic actor in the field of reconnaissance and observation satellites. Due to the sensitive situation of the country, consecutive governments have heavily invested in them for defense and military objectives. Israeli reconnaissance and Earth observation satellites are divided into two series of satellites. Ofek series satellites are used for defense and military purpose. EROS series satellites are used for commercial Earth observation applications.

The first Ofek satellite, which was a spy satellite for radar and reconnaissance services, was launched in 1988. Since then, the Israel Aerospace Industries has launched every few years a new Ofek satellite. Ofek satellites are low-Earth orbit satellites, which means that they are launched to reach an orbit between 250 and 1,200 km from the Earth. This orbit allows them to fly several times around the Earth in a day in order to observe the same point several times. In comparison, telecommunication satellites have to reach a geostationary orbit at 36,000 km from the Earth. These satellites are also very light and have a shorter life expectancy, which means they need to be replaced more often.

The first Ofek satellite was used mainly for communication and radar transmission. But since the launch of Ofek-3 in 1995, the Ofek satellites also have reconnaissance and high-resolution imaging capabilities.

The Ofek satellites are well known for two specific reasons. They are launched by a local Israeli launcher built and operated by the Israel Aerospace Industries, Shavit, which means comet in English. The reason for local launching is obvious as these satellites contain very sensitive materials for military and defense purposes. However, it is interesting to highlight that thanks to the Shavit launching system program, Israel is one of the only eight nations in the world to have satellite-launching capacity. The second specificity of the Ofek satellites is that they are launched on the opposite side of the Earth rotation, contrary to nearly all other reconnaissance satellites. The Israeli satellites then do not benefit from the strength of earth rotation. The main reason for this choice is to avoid launching the satellites from the side of Arab neighborhoods.

Most of the Ofek series satellites were launched successfully and then able to provide the information required. The satellites are built to fly above the same place on earth 90 times a day. However, two of the satellites were lost over the years due to launch failures. This was the case for Ofek-4 in 1998 and for 0fek-6 in 2004. The last satellite of the series, Ofek-11, was launched very recently on September 13, 2016. The satellite was built to provide high-resolution images from a new imaging system, Jupiter high-resolution imaging, with an increased resolution of 0.5 meter from the previous satellite’s 0.8 meter.

However, after the satellite reached its orbit, the operating team reported that the launch was not a full success and that there were some malfunctions. During the first hours after the launch, the Israel Aerospace Industries was even concerned that the satellite might be lost in space. However, after continuous efforts, contact with the satellite was established and the first images from it were received about a week after its launch. Even if the satellite is currently not working at 100% of its performance, the Israel Space Agency spokesperson declared that the satellite is providing very high-quality pictures and that the technical team is still working to improve its performances.

The second part of the Israeli programs is more related to civil Earth observation with the EROS program, Earth Resources Observation Satellite. Currently, the EROS consists of two satellites that were respectively launched in 2000 and 2006. As the program is for civil observation, the two satellites were launched from the Start-1 launcher in Russia. The satellites were also built by the Israel Aerospace Industries but operated by ImageSat International, a private company co-jointly owned by the Israel Aerospace Industries (30%), Elbit and several investors from Europe and the United States.

As of today, annual revenue for Imagesat is estimated to be around $30 million to $50 million. This still represents a small share of the Earth observation civil market, which recently reached around $2 billion per year. However, the company is very optimistic about increasing its revenue. The company already announced several deals during the year such as security enhancement for the Rio Olympic Games or estimation of the damages following the deadly August earthquake in Italy. ImageSat also awaits the launch of its third satellite EROS-C to provide higher resolution images and thus to offer more attractive services to its customers. However, the launch of the satellite has been delayed several times and is only planned for 2019.

In addition to the 11-Ofek satellites, the two EROS satellites and the EROS-C satellite that is under construction, the Israel Aerospace Industries has been involved in several deals to build Earth observation or reconnaissance satellites for other non-local customers. The company built the Opsat-3000 reconnaissance satellite for the Italian Defense Ministry. The satellite was built in collaboration with Telespazio in order to support the Italian Armed Forces. It contains a very high-resolution imagery system similar to the one planned for EROS-C. The satellite should be launched a little later than previously planned between January and March 2017.  The Israel Aerospace Industries is also building another similar satellite for another government that requested to remain anonymous.

This makes Israel the country and government with the largest building capacity for earth observation and reconnaissance satellites. Opher Doron, the General Manager of the Israel Aerospace Industries Space Division, has confirmed that the space agency will maintain its aggressive commercial approach and continue bidding on markets abroad in order to build new satellites.

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