The Israeli TecSAR satellite was launched on January 21 by an Indian Polar Space Launch Vehicle (PSLV)-C10 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at the Sriharikota range in south-east India. It entered orbit about 80 minutes after launch. Less than two weeks later, on January 31st, it sent its first images. The photographs, which were taken at night in stormy weather, were said by Israel Aerospace Industry personnel to be of exceptional quality.
TecSAR was built by IAI’s Mabat space facility and it carries components from Elta and other Israeli companies (Rafael, Tadiran, Spectralink and Rokar). It joins other IAI surveillance satellites already in space – the Ofeq-7 that was launched in June 2007 and the Eros-B launched in April 2006. However, TecSAR is unique in several respects. First of all, it uses Synthetic Aperture Radar technology (SAR) to provide images of the earth’s surface. Since the images are generated by radar rather than by visible light, it can perform at night as well as during daytime and it can see through clouds. The satellite’s operational specifications are classified but it can reportedly provide high-resolution images sufficient for military intelligence needs.
The satellite can operate in a number of modes, including wide area scans, and provide both strip and point coverage. Each mode naturally provides a different degree of resolution. Aiming can be done by electronic steering of the radar beam or by physical steering of the satellite itself. These capabilities have been packed into a relatively small package. TecSAR weighs about 300 kilograms, of which only 100 are payload. The low mass allows for operational agility – which means that operators can redirect its antenna from one target to another very quickly.
Another unusual feature was the choice of launch vehicle. Until now, Israel has preferred to launch its Ofeq-series surveillance satellites by itself, using the Shavit satellite launcher. That entailed a number of benefits. First of all, there was the advantage of independence from any foreign participation. Independent launch capability, especially in time of crisis when Israel might be subjected to an embargo, could turn out to be vital. Secondly, a satellite launch capability is an important element of Israel’s deterrent power, since it can always be translated into a surface-to-surface missile capability. Indeed, foreign analysts have long assessed that the Shavit can also carry a one-ton warhead over a range of 4000 kilometers. Thirdly, satellite launch capability is a major component of Israel’s image as a leading technological power in the world, because very few states have such a capability.
However, the use of the Shavit also involved some drawbacks. The most important was the constraint on possible satellite orbits. Any launch from Israeli territory must be directed westwards, towards the sea, in order to prevent the launcher’s first stages (or the satellite itself, in case of a malfunction) from falling on populated areas or on foreign territory. A westward launch, i.e., against the direction of the earth’s rotation, seriously restricts the weight of the satellite that the launch vehicle can carry. In the past, Israel also experienced several failures – the most recent example being the attempted Ofeq-6 launch in March 2004 – though it should be noted that such failures are not rare in the launch industry and a failure rate of several percent is considered almost standard. In such cases, security links and the operational experience of another partner can allow alternative launches when needed.
Israel has used foreign commercial rockets in the past for a variety of reasons. Its Amos communications satellites were all launched by commercial boosters because Israel has neither the capability nor the geographic location needed to put communications satellites into space. (Communications satellites are placed in geosynchronous orbit at a fixed point over the equator and are much heavier than the Ofeq surveillance satellites.) Moreover, the Eros-series commercial imagery satellites, similar to the Ofeq series, were also sent into orbit by commercial launchers.(The two EROS satellites used Russian commercial launchers to reach near-polar orbits that permit almost global coverage.)
The TecSAR represents the first Israeli use of the Indian PSLV launcher, which makes possible an orbit that could not be reached from Israel: altitude 450-580 kilometers, with an inclination of 41 degrees. As a result, TecSAR cruises from west to east, unlike all the surveillance satellites launched from Israel itself.
For the Indians, this launch was an important step in introducing the PSLV into the commercial launcher market. The PSLV was inaugurated in 1994 and has now had 11 successful launches, although the first commercially significant launch took place only in April 2007. It is noteworthy that because of strong domestic opposition in India to excessively close security cooperation with Israel, the Indians stressed the purely commercial character of the launch.
TecSAR undoubtedly constitutes a technological breakthrough for Israel’s defense industry. It is an advanced satellite with few competitors in the world. It is unique in its capabilities and in its size (similar American surveillance satellites are much heavier). And for the defense establishment in Israel, it provides coverage of the whole of the Middle East. Together with the Ofeq-7, the TecSAR will make possible a larger number of “visits” to points of interest at any given time and will permit night-time and all-weather coverage.