JERUSALEM – Israel launched a sophisticated spy satellite Tuesday in an attempt to extend its ability to monitor military developments in the region and in a clear demonstration of its advanced missile capabilities.
Defense Ministry spokesman Yarden Vatikay confirmed that the Ofek-5 satellite had been sent into space from Israel's launching facility at the Palmahim air force base on the coast, south of Tel Aviv, but refused to say if it had reach its planned orbit.
Witnesses saw the rocket streaking through the clear blue sky over Israel's Mediterranean coast, leaving behind a white vapor trail.
If the craft reached orbit, it would replace Ofek-3, which burned up about a year ago re-entering the earth's atmosphere.
Israeli media reports said the satellite was launched by an Israeli-made Shavit missile, a version of the long-range Jericho ground-to-ground missile. Foreign experts have been quoted as saying the Jericho missile can carry nuclear warheads, but Israeli officials have never commented on that claim.
Israel launched its first spy satellite, Ofek-1, in 1988, followed by Ofek-2 in 1990. The third satellite in the series was sent into orbit in 1995. The first major hitch in the spy satellite project came in 1998, when a rocket that was to launch Ofek-4 into space failed.
The military tried to extend the life of Ofek-3 by turning off its batteries, extending its life from the planned three years to about six. The military has refused to say when it burned up.
Since then, the Israeli military has been using a private Israeli satellite, Eros, for its needs. The Ofek-5, which carries sophisticated cameras and sensors developed by Israeli firms, is to orbit at a height of about 300 miles, experts said.
Ofek is a Hebrew word that means horizon.