The Israeli government secretly launched its Ofek-11 electro-optical reconnaissance satellite on a Shavit space launch vehicle from Palmachim Air Base in Israel on the night of Tuesday, 13 September 2016.
Shortly after launch, however, it became apparent that there were problems with the Ofek-11 satellite, built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the Israeli Ministry of Defence (MoD). According to various Israeli press reports, the Ofek-11 satellite was successfully put into orbit by the Shavit launcher, but was not responding to all of the commands being issued from its Israeli mission control.
If the Ofek-11 satellite is completely lost – and at this stage it should be stated that there is still a chance that Israeli engineers can still recover the satellite – then September 2016 will turn out to be a catastrophic month for the Israeli space sector, having lost Spacecom’s Amos-6 telecommunications satellite when it was destroyed by the SpaceX Falcon-9 space launch vehicle that blew up on its Cape Canaveral launch pad on 1 September 2016.
That accident not only destroyed the Amos-6 satellite that was due to be launched on 3 September 2016, but also jeopardised the sale of Spacecom to the Beijing Xinwei Technology Group Co. Ltd., a Chinese telecommunications company, for U.S.$285 million. Both companies are now reviewing that sale in light of the loss of Amos-6, while SpaceX and the U.S. government are still trying to find the cause of the 1 September explosion.
With regard to the unresponsive Ofek-11 reconnaissance satellite, Israeli engineers and authorities are still trying to remedy the situation and recover the satellite. SpaceWatch Middle East reported last week that IAI was building a new Ofek reconnaissance satellite, based on reporting by Israeli online publication Israel Defense. It would appear that both IAI and the Israeli government were successful in keeping the new Ofek satellite and its launch preparations secret, with the announcement of the new Ofek-11 not occurring until shortly after it left the launch pad at Palmachim, catching space watchers around the world and the region by surprise.
Israeli officials told media shortly after the Ofek-11 launch that, “there are indications according to which things aren’t working as we expected, and so we are trying to stabilize (the satellite). There are things that make us worried. The satellite orbits the earth once every hour and a half. It’s possible that some systems are not in the correct condition.”
The loss of Amos-6 earlier this month has caused much soul-searching among Israeli officials and aerospace executives about the current state of the Israeli space sector. There have been complaints that the Israeli government has neglected its own space industry, and lacks a coherent and plausible policy and strategy for harnessing the talents and resources of Israeli space expertise in the coming decade and beyond. This alleged neglect is contrasted with the way in which Israel nurtures and promotes its world-class information communications technology and cybersecurity industry.
If Ofek-11 is lost, then these criticisms and contrasts will undoubtedly increase.