Israel has launched a Shavit-2 rocket carrying a military satellite into a retrograde orbit from its space launch base in Palmachim, on the coast of central Israel south of Tel Aviv.
The launch took place at 23:10 UTC on Tuesday, March 28 (2:10 AM local time on Wednesday, March 29) from Pad 1 at the Palmachim military air base. The three stage Shavit vehicle lit up the night sky as it climbed into space, successfully placing the Ofek 13 satellite into a retrograde orbit.
The Ofek 13 satellite is said to be a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities. SAR can penetrate clouds and observe targets at any time of the day or night, giving it a notable advantage over optical Earth observation systems.
Due to geography, Israel must use retrograde orbits, with the launch vehicle flying west over the Mediterranean Sea, to avoid spent stages endangering civilian areas and to avoid overflying neighboring countries to the east. An orbital inclination of approximately 143 degrees is typically used for these launches.
As a result of the retrograde orbital path, going against the rotation of the Earth, the Shavit-2 vehicle would not be able to carry as much of a payload from Palmachim as it would flying east, with the Earth’s rotation, from other launch sites. The payload capacity of the current Shavit version is listed by its maker Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) as 380 kilograms.
Current Ofek family satellites mass approximately 300 kg, so the listed payload capability would be applicable for launches from Palmachim. Ofek, which is “horizon” in Hebrew, is the name applied to all Israeli military reconnaissance satellites launched aboard the Shavit family, though Ofek 8, also known as TecSAR-1, was launched aboard an Indian PSLV launch vehicle from Sriharikota in 2008.
The first two Ofek satellites to fly were for testing systems to be used in later operational satellites. Beginning with the third Ofek satellite launched in 1995, each Ofek family satellite has flown operational reconnaissance payloads. Some Ofek satellites use an advanced electro-optical system with up to a 0.5-meter resolution, while other Ofek satellites use a SAR system for observation in all weather and lighting conditions.
This flight is the 10th successful Israeli satellite launch out of 12 attempts, and the sixth successful launch of the current Shavit-2 launch vehicle. Israel launched Ofek 1 into orbit in September 1988 using the first version of the Shavit rocket, which is based on the first two stages of the Jericho-II ballistic missile.
The 1988 launch made Israel the eighth nation to launch a satellite to orbit with an indigenous rocket. Israel has a launch cadence approximating once every three years or so, and successful launches of Shavit family rockets took place in 1990, 1995, 2002, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2016, 2020, and now 2023.
The only failures in the series of Shavit family launches were in 1998 and 2004, both using the earlier Shavit-1 vehicle. Shavit-1 is actually the second iteration of the Shavit launch vehicle, after the initial Shavit rocket that flew the first two missions.
The current Shavit-2, the third iteration of the launch vehicle, was developed after the 2004 launch failure that destroyed the $100 million Ofek-6 satellite. The Shavit-2 vehicle has flown successfully on all six of its attempts including this launch.
Shavit-2 launch vehicles use three stages with solid rocket motors. The first stage fires for 55 seconds. After first stage separation, the second stage flies to an altitude of 110 kilometers. Beginning at an altitude of 240 kilometers, the spin-stabilized third stage fires its engine to take the payload to a transfer orbit with an altitude of 250 kilometers.
The first two stages of the Shavit-2 are ATSM-13 solid rocket motors, while the third stage is the AUS-51. The ATSM-13 solid rocket motors are made by Elbit Systems Land while the third stage is made by Rafael. A fourth stage using liquid hydrazine was proposed for the LeoLink commercial variant of the Shavit series, but LeoLink was canceled in 2002.
IAI appears to still be attempting to market the Shavit for commercial launches, as per documentation on its website. Regardless of its commercial prospects, the Shavit family of rockets remains operational for reconnaissance satellite launches.
(Lead image: Shavit-2 launches with the Ofek 13 satellite. Credit: Israel Ministry of Defense)