It happens only once in a few years: Israel launches a new space satellite. The reconnaissance satellite “Ofek 9” (Hebrew for ‘Horizon’) has been successfully launched from Palmahim air base. The IAF Magazine is delighted to offer a glimpse into the launch process and the people who never stop dreaming
Yuval Shoham | Nikolai Avrutov | Yonatan Mor and Israeli Aerial Industry
When the countdown begins, all lights are off. Only the glare of the computers screens disrupts the total darkness. It is also very quiet. Only brief exchanges between crew members are heard. When asked why are the lights off? They reply that it is in order to see the screens better. Perhaps it is also meant to enhance the intensity of the moment, the suspense, and the adrenaline, to have everyone focused on the mission. One thing is clear: this is not a drill, it’s the real thing. The rocket blasts into the air, leaving a trail of smoke behind it, carrying the new satellite into its orbit.
Over the sea
There are not many countries that are capable of launching a satellite into space. In fact, less than ten countries are members of the prestigious “space club”. Israel is a member, and it looks like Iran is on its way to join. Presently, Earth’s orbit is traversed by eight Israeli made satellites; three of them are reconnaissance satellites (three generations of “Ofek” series). All three were launched from the Palmahim air base.
Launching a satellite is quite an undertaking. Beyond money, knowledge, and technology, a large space for the launch site is required. In such a small country like Israel, the sea shore is the best location to be used for launching rockets. The launch area is called “The Experimentation Field” by the REU (Rockets Experimentation Unit). This unit is responsible on launching the satellite into its orbit using a launching rocket. Once in orbit, it becomes the responsibility of a special intelligence unit.
“The REU has three central roles in launching a satellite” explains Lieut. Col. Boaz, head of the experimentation unit. “The first is the safety. We secure the entire launch: we know the exact location of the rocket at any given time, and we are able to destroy it if it falls outside of predetermined trajectory. A safety officer is dedicated to the purpose during the launch, is responsible to make the right decision in case of emergency”.
“The second is data processing. A lot of telemetry data is passed transmitted from the rocket during the launch. We receive and process this data. The information we retrieve is then passed to the equipment manufacturers, for further study and to be used in future developments. The third role is managing the entire process. A national-scale event of this kind involves ground, sea, and air closures, increased patrols deep in sea. The launch requires a close cooperation with the air force, marines, and home front command. The entire process is very complex”.
“The main decision to be made is whether we can, and if yes them when should we launch”, adds Lieut. Col. Boaz. “There are many constraints that have to be met in order for the process to succeed: strong winds, cloudy conditions, breach in security closures, system malfunctions are just a few of the things that could go wrong. Our responsibility is to manage all these constraints in such a way, as to make the launch possible”.
An additional parameter which makes the launch an even greater challenge, is the direction in which the rocket is launched. While the rest of the world aims east, in the direction of the rotation of earth, Israel does not have that option available, and it is forced to launch in the western direction – over the sea. Launching the rocket in eastern direction adds speed and energy to the rocket, but as Lieut. Col Boaz says: “We simple don’t have that option. We are surrounded by land, so we have to launch west over the sea, in the opposite direction of earth’s rotation”.
Not Far From NASA
A great view can be seen from the Experimentation Field: blue sea, golden sands, and dense wild vegetation. A few days before the launch, Lieut. Oren, and officer in the unit, volunteers to take us on a guided tour around the field, and introduce us to the various systems on it.
Radars, optical systems, telemetry stations and other sophisticated systems are scattered around the field, and are ready to be used in the launch process. “Are NASA envious?” we joke. “They are not envious”, replies an officer at the telemetry station. “but we are not very far behind them”.
“All the ground systems ‘talk’ one to another and are connected to the command center”, explains Lieut. Oren. From a far, we can see the launch pad itself: a large, tall structure, standing alone in the sands.
The launch rocket is composed of three parts: the front contains the satellite itself. Once in space, it will spread its solar wings. The other two parts are fuel tanks, which are disposed off into the sea once exhausted during the take off. “We have to make sure that these areas are free of marine vessels and air craft. Some of the areas are close to hostile countries”, says Lieut. Col. Boaz.
In preparations for the launch day, numerous exercises are conducted, to assure seamless operation and eliminate any misunderstandings. Technicians, controllers, de-coders and a whole array of other roles are involved in this complex operation. Some of them will be at the command center when the rocket is launched, while others will be closely monitoring the various systems all around the Experimentation Field.
At the REU, everyone talk about team work and how essential it is for such an operation to succeed. “You never work alone”, explains Major Igal Podverzaski, commander of Technical Standards unit. “The team becomes family for three months. Everyone depend on each other”.
It never feels good to fail, and when it comes to launching a satellite (a major event, which happens on average once in three years), mission failure is the nightmare of anyone involved. Nevertheless, the people at REU are bracing for the worst, as the history of satellite launch demonstrates that the chances for mission failure are not so low. “It either goes up in space or down to sea”, jokes one of the unit members, who uses dark humour as a way to cope with the stress.
“Our task is to make sure, that even in case of system failure, the rocket does not go out of its predetermined boundaries”, Says Boaz.
Some members of REU recall the failed GPS satellite launch by NASA. The ‘Delta II’ rocket exploded seconds after takeoff. Video recordings of the launch show the ball of fire as it erupts and scatters debris on the entire launch area. The extreme heat melted cars, and structures on ground. The entire area looked like a battle field. Everyone hopes that such images will not repeat in Israel. “I am calm”, says Major Raz Levi, commander of the administrative unit, who serves as the launch director. “A malfunction at the Experimental Field is a very extreme and unlikely case. We have an entire procedure to eliminate everything possible”.
Eventually, the rocket launch is successful. After several delays, the launch date was set for June 22nd, and went seamlessly well.
“It was an amazing launch. Finally the moment arrived”, said Major Yoel, head of reconnaissance satellites division. “This kind of an event doesn’t happen every day, and we all feel a great sense of satisfaction”.
“I’ve been working on this project for over a year”, says Captain Idan Amsalem, technical Commander of the launch that is responsible for all the systems on the Experimental Field. “It’s our baby, we all felt attached to this satellite”. Lieut. Col. Shlomo, who monitored the launch, reported that in terms of the parameters, and the entry to orbit, the launch was near optimal.
“We understand the significance”
The significance of the launch of the satellite goes beyond the greater coverage it allows of the “places of interest” to the national security of Israel. It also serves as a deterrent. “We are considered to be in a very advanced placed within the ‘space club’, as we have extensive knowledge and very advanced technologies”, explains Boaz.
Lieut. Col. Boaz also marks the significance this launch has for the people of Israel: “it is an Israeli pride. The Israeli industries once again demonstrated their remarkable capabilities. For everyone involved on the project, this is the peak of our careers”.
There was a great deal of excitement among the crews of REU, however it was only after the successful launch that they showed it. When they raised their glasses of Champagne, Israel already had a fresh set of eyes in the skies.
Three days after its launch, the “Ofek 9” satellite already sends images to ground control. “The quality is remarkable”, says Lieut. Gen. Shlomo. “everyone wants to see them. The air force and the intelligence units are the main consumers of the satellite images”.
“The satellite requires constant and ongoing maintenance”, continues Shlomo. “It experiences various emergencies, malfunctions, and it can also collide with other objects in space. Once something of this sort happens, the control over the satellite is assumed by the Israeli Aerospace Industries until the problem is fixed”.
What about “Ofek 10”, the next generation satellite being developed right now? “It will have greater resolutions, better coverage and in general will have a much greater precision”, says Major Yoel.
The “Air Force” is the widely used name for the aero-space arm of the Israeli Defence Forces. It is easy to forget the important role space technologies play within the force. “When I say I am the head of the space division, many people are surprised that Israel is actually involved in the field”, smiles Lieut. Gen. Shlomo. “The rest of the world is well aware of our space capabilities, but the awareness in Israel itself is quite low. I hope that this launch and the ones to come in the future will assist in raising that awareness. Perhaps in the future, people will say ‘the Israel Air and Space Force’”.