TEL AVIV, Israel, July 6 (UPI) -- Israel's Spacecom Satellite Communications plans to replace the Amos-2 commercial communications satellite with the 5-ton Amos-6 craft to be built by Israel Aerospace Industries, the Jewish state's leading defense and aerospace company.
The $200 million Amos-6, Israel's 14th satellite since its first successful launch in September 1983, is scheduled for liftoff in the first quarter of 2015. It's designed to have an orbital life of 16 years.
It will replace the 1.4-ton Amos-2, also built by IAI, whose operational life is expected to end in 2016, in its geosynchronous orbit 22,500 miles above the Earth.
By way of comparison, U.S. satellites usually weight around 25 tons.
Amos-2 was launched atop a Russian Soyuz booster rocket Dec. 28, 2003, from the former Soviet cosmodrome at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
The satellite "will incorporate new technologies that represent a significant leap forward in the capabilities of IAI and the state of Israel in space," observed IAI's new president and chief executive, Joseph Weiss, following Spacecom's announcement.
The Amos series -- it stands for Affordable Modular Optimized Satellite -- is designed for civilian use, although it's probable that it also has some military applications to advance the Jewish state's capabilities in space.
IAI's main military focus in space is embodied in the Ofek series of highly sophisticated surveillance satellites. Several are among the 10 Israeli satellites still operational in space.
Under the deal with Spacecom, state-owned IAI, flagship of Israel's defense industry, will build Amos-6 and its ground control systems, as well as provide operating services.
Spacecom's a subsidiary of the Israeli-owned Eurocom Group, controlling shareholder of the Bezeq Israeli Telecommunication Co.
IAI is Israel's only satellite manufacturer and has played a key role in developing Israel's military surveillance craft.
These are focused primarily on Iran and Syria, the Jewish state's most implacable foes in the Middle East., to monitor their ballistic missile capabilities and, in Iran's case, its nuclear program.
Indeed, military satellites have had the lion's share of the funding provided by successive Israeli governments.
The country's satellite program was initiated to meet military requirements for improved optical reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities against Israel's regional foes.
Ofek-1, the first military satellite, was launched into low orbit atop a three-stage Shavit rocket Sept, 19, 1983. The Shavit is believed to be the civil version of Israel's nuclear-capable Jericho ballistic missile.
Ofek-2, the first fully functioning military satellite, was launched in 1990.
After two failures, the first satellite with optical transmission capabilities, Ofek-3 went into orbit in 1995.
From this Israel's space program emerged, despite the misgivings of the military establishment, with the focus on commercial communications.
IAI is the lead contractor in satellite and space projects, with Elta, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Elbit Systems' El-Op division, Israel Military Industries, Tadiran, Elisra and Specterlink the main subcontractors.
Haim Esher, former director of the Defense Ministry's space program and a retired brigadier general, is the father of Israel's satellite program and has been largely responsible for the development of commercial satellites such as the Amos series.
In 1981, he convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin that Israel should have a space program to maintain its technological supremacy over its regional adversaries.
But funding for space program projects has largely been far less than the finances lavished on military satellites.
In September 2011, as Esher was due to retire as head of the military space program, he warned that Israel was in danger of losing its regional superiority in space because the government of rightwing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to free $420 million in promised funds for the high-tech industry.
That had been pledged in 2010 as part of a plan to elevate Israel into what the Jerusalem Post called "a space superpower."
Esher then became director of the Israel Space Agency, a state body that coordinates all Israeli space research with scientific and commercial goals.
Despite Israel's advanced technological achievements, he said, sales of space platforms over the past two decades had earned the country less than $2.5 billion.
The international space market is worth $250 billion a year and Israeli aerospace companies could secure at least 5 percent of that, he maintained.