The quality of the images sent by Israel’s new spy satellite the Ofeq-9 to the ground station, did not surprise anyone familiar with the capabilities of the Israeli space industry.
Israel has years ago gained its membership in the exclusive "club" of countries that are capable of manufacturing spy satellites and launching them into orbit.
The exact date on which Iran will have nuclear capability is not clear yet but Israel is making a huge effort to be the first to know.
To make sure, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the capabilities of Israel's spy satellites. This capability could not have been bought anywhere. The result - Israel has in space an array of very advanced spy satellites and is developing new and even more advanced ones.
This level of technology is very impressive if one looks on the members of the small exclusive club of nations that can manufacture and launch their own spy satellites.
Currently Israel has six active spy satellites in space. Some could be considered "young" in terms of space and others are in the "adult" category. All six broadcast their images to a ground station at a classified location somewhere in central Israel. The images they capture while flying in low earth orbit over "interesting" states like Iran and Syria – amongst others - are received here and are put into a long process of data extraction.
There are three satellites of the "Offeq" series, two of which are so called "Civil" satellites of the "Eros" class and the third ‘Tecsar ' carries a synthetic aperture (SAR) radar - allowing Israel to continuously monitor areas of interest.
Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) has built all the spy satellites according to very precise operational requirements presented by the IDF's intelligence corps. "We work with the customers very closely from the design phase" an IAI source said.
Deep in the ground at a military base in central Israel is the heart of the spy satellite operations. From this facility they are controlled and in special rooms their images are being translated into operational data.
In a visit to the underground facility Defence Review Asia learned about the very intimate connection between the operators and "their" satellites.
The teams use very advanced technology to extract the most useful data from each image. This data is sent to the different "customers", Air Force, Navy, Ground Forces and intelligence.
Much of the information "produced" in the underground facility serves as the basis for various security operations that will remain under heavy curtain for many years to come.
Extracting the data from the optical and SAR images is the most important part of the facility's operation. Special software and other analytical tools can extract the required information. At this point speed is the main factor because good intelligence is often time critical.
Some foreign publications say that Israel has built a "Bank" of targets that are part of Iran's nuclear sites and that the information was obtained through close monitoring of the "areas of interest"
The foreign publications claimed that the Offeq-9 has a resolution of "less than half a meter". Israel does not reveal the capabilities of its spy satellites but it is believed to be very good in any international standard.
While the SAR capabilities of the Tecsar have added to the 24\7 imagery collecting ability, this is not the last word in the space sensor technology.
EL OP in Israel, is developing very advanced hyper spectral payloads, for aircraft and satellites, to enhance the detection and verification process of targets.
EL OP , a division of Elbit systems, is currently manufacturing very advanced optical payloads and has manufactured the payloads of all the Israeli spy satellites that are equipped with optical systems. But to get better resolution from optical payloads, the aperture and focal length of them needs to be increased - which is a limiting factor.
To overcome this problem, EL OP is developing the technology for a very advanced hyper spectral payload.
According to EL OP, the new payload will be based on a "bank" of known wavelengths reflected from numerous of potential targets. A spokesman reveals that, for example " the fuel fumes from a hidden tank will help to identify it .Other emissions will tell the exact location of other items".
According to ELOP , the "bank" will include wavelengths in both the visible and non-visible part of the spectrum.
The Offeq series spy satellites have been launched from the Israeli airforec base in Palmachim , located in central Israel. This indigenous capability is based on the SHAVIT family of satellite launchers. These launchers developed and manufactured by the MLM division of IAI.
SHAVIT is a three-stage satellite launcher, powered by three solid fuel rocket motors. The first two stages lift the launcher to an altitude of approximately 110 km. From this point, the launcher continues to gain height while coasting up to approximately 250 km, where the launcher positions itself and ejects the satellite shroud. After the separation of the main instrumentation compartment and while the launcher is spinning, the third stage motor is ignited. Thus, the satellite is inserted accurately into its transfer orbit at an altitude of approximately 260 km.
SHAVIT utilizes a unique set of launch preparation equipment. It is largely independent of the launch site and provides full testing of the launcher on the launch pad. This configuration enables satellite launch from different launch sites, according to customer requirements.
In 2008 Israel aerospace industries (IAI) and Rafael formed MicroSat - a joint venture company for the development of micro satellites with a weight of up to 120kg.
The plan is to to equip these light satellites with a variety of payloads.
Sources related to the newly formed company say that there is great potential for the micro satellites for military and civil applications. A launcher of the IAI Shavit type will be capable of carrying up to 3 micro satellites at any one time.
In the early stages of the project IAI and Rafael evaluated an air launch of the micro satellites but they abandoned the idea.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been evaluating the use of Micro satellites for the detection of ground - ground missile launchers during wartime. The plan is to store the micro satellites at air force bases, and to launch them on operational demand.
But since its formation, MicroSat is only a "paper company". The two partners have not agreed on some basic issues and it is not operating as planned. It seems that the operational requirement was not accompanied so far with a budget.
Despite this it would seem that Israel has built an impressive space capability and is working to improve it. This is a major achievement for a small country.