Israel launches Ofek 9 spy satellite

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel launched a spy satellite called “Ofek 9” late Tuesday, Israel’s Defense Ministry and officials said, increasing Israel’s capacity to keep an eye on enemies like Iran.

The Defense Ministry issued a statement saying the satellite was launched late Tuesday from the Palmachim air force base on Israel’s coast south of Tel Aviv. An hour later, after the satellite completed its first circuit, the ministry said it had achieved its proper orbit, describing it as “a surveillance satellite with advanced technological capabilities.”

Defense officials said Ofek 9 is a spy satellite with a high resolution camera. It would join two other active spy satellites in the Ofek series already orbiting the earth. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because details were not made public, said the three satellites would give Israel considerable coverage of sensitive areas.

Addition of a new satellite gives Israel the capability of sending space-borne cameras over sensitive areas more frequently. One of Israel’s main targets for spy photos is Iran, because of its nuclear program.

Israel considers Iran to be a strategic threat, charging that its nuclear program is meant for developing bombs, despite Iranian denials. Also, Iran has tested missiles that can reach Israel, and its leaders frequently refer to Israel’s destruction.

Israel is also thought to be targeting Syria with its satellites. In 2007, warplanes struck a site in Syria thought to be a nuclear facility under construction. Israel has not commented, but it was widely reported that the attacking aircraft were Israeli.

Defense officials said that with each successive Israeli satellite, cameras are more advanced and offer higher resolution. They said the camera aboard Ofek 9 was made by Elbit, a leading Israeli high-tech optics firm. They said the camera could pick out missiles and launchers on the ground.

Isaac Ben-Israel, a former head of the Israeli space agency, told Israel Radio that the new satellite weighs about 650 pounds (300 kilograms), small in comparison to American spy satellites. He said it would take another two or three days before it could be determined if its camera was working properly. So far, he said, Israel has not had problems with cameras aboard its satellites.

In 2008, an Israeli spy satellite launched from India took aloft an advanced radar system that would allow photography in all weather conditions and at night.

Besides its spy satellites, Israel also has a number of communications satellites in orbit.