Israel launches 'eye in the sky' over Iran

JERUSALEM - Israel has successfully launched a highly accurate imaging satellite which will enhance its ability to spy on Iran, officials said.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said this week that the nuclear programme being pursued by arch-foe Iran was the most serious threat faced by Jews since the Nazi Holocaust.

"Everything has gone completely to plan," Shimon Eckhaus, chief executive of manufacturer ImageSat International, told Reuters. "But it will take several more days before the satellite becomes fully operational."

The launch took place in the Russian Far East.

Mofaz was quoted by Israeli daily Haaretz on the launch as saying: "It will strengthen capabilities to gather quality intelligence far from Israel's borders."

Eckhaus said the Eros B satellite had a camera which can decipher objects on the ground as small as 70cm across and can differentiate between objects which are at least that distance apart.

Asked if Iran should be wary of the Eros B, Eckhaus said: "If they are doing only good things they don't have to be afraid ... but this camera has outstanding capability and can detect and provide a lot of information including (from) Iran."

Eckhaus said Eros B will join an earlier version of the satellite, Eros A, which was launched in December 2000. Both are set to augment the work of Israel's declared military spy satellite, Ofek 5, which regularly passes over Arab territory.

Eckhaus said that the Eros B satellite orbits the Earth in a polaric orbit - across the rotation - and can therefore monitor changes on the ground on a daily basis.

"The satellite covers every square kilometre worldwide, including Iran ... in order to know what countries are doing you can compare the changes on a daily basis so if there is any progress at any site you can easily know about it," he said.

The Eros satellites are effective only in daylight and in clear visibility but a report in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily said Israel was planning to launch another spy satellite which could view objects in all weather conditions and in darkness.

Eros B's launch comes at a time of heightened tension over Iran's nuclear programme.

The United States accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear bombs and has refused to rule out military options if diplomacy fails to curb the Islamic Republic's atomic ambitions. Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful and aimed at generating electricity.

Like its predecessor in 2000, Eros B was launched from the Svobodny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East on Tuesday using a Russian Start-1 rocket.

The Eros satellites, which weigh under 350kg, are among a number of small, lightweight satellites which Israel's space industry has perfected, Eckhaus said.

Because of the country's geographical location and small size, the space industry generally favours smaller payloads that can more easily be launched from Israeli territory.

"The fact that we are launching the satellite in Russia means that we can do so with the Earth's rotation and makes it more effective and gives it a longer life span," Eckhaus said.

The satellite manufacturer ImageSat International is partly owned by government-held Israel Aircraft Industries, the country's biggest defence company.

The satellite's camera was developed and manufactured by El-Op, a subsidiary of Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems, which also has a stake in ImageSat International.

- REUTERS

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