TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 3 (UPI) -- Israel Aerospace Industries has launched the Amos 4 communications satellite, strengthening the Jewish state's foothold in space where it's building its own array of military surveillance satellites whose main mission is to spy on war-torn Syria and Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
Amos 4, at 3.5 tons Israel's largest spacecraft to date, was launched Saturday at the Russian-operated Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan. Israel's Space Communications Ltd., which will operate the satellite, said it will become operational in two months, providing video and broadband services for Russia and the Middle East.
"The Israeli Space Agency is expanding its activity substantially, and the launching of this satellite is another landmark in the course the State of Israel has set out on -- joining the top five leading countries in the field," said Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri.
"This ... proves to us, once more, that for Israeli technology the sky is no longer the limit."
State-owned IAI, flagship of Israel's defense industry, is the lead contractor in satellite and space projects. Elta, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Elbit Systems' El-Op division, Israel Military Industries, Tadiran, Elisra and Specterlink are the main subcontractors.
Spacecom is a subsidiary of the Israeli-owned Eurocom Group, controlling shareholder of the Bezeq Israeli Telecommunications Co.
Amos 1, the first in the series and based on Israeli Ofeq spy satellites, was launched May 16, 1996, from the European Space Center in French Guyana.
Amos 5, the only craft in that series developed by JSC/Reshetnev, was launched out of sequence Dec. 11, 2011, providing communications coverage for the Middle East and Africa.
Amos 6, built by IAI, is expected to be launched in 2016 and will replace Amos 2, launched from Baikonur Dec. 28, 2003.
Amos 6, which Spacecom says will weigh 5 tons, will make a major leap forward for IAI, center of the country's space's program. The $200 million craft will carry advanced technologies.
It will be IAI's 14th satellite. Ten of these are still operational and include several in the Ofeq series that are conducting military intelligence missions.
The Ofeq satellites are launched aboard IAI-built Shavit-2 rockets -- believed to be the civilian version of the nuclear-capable Jericho intermediate-range ballistic missile -- from the Palmachim Israeli air force on the Mediterranean coast south of Tel Aviv.
Ofeq 1, weighing only 155 pounds, was launched Sept. 19, 1988. Ofeq 9 was launched June 22, 2010, and placed into orbit 375 miles above the Earth.
The 650-pound craft is considered to be one of Israel's most advanced operational spy satellites. It carries a high-resolution camera made by Elbit, a leading Israeli high-tech optics company, capable of spotting missiles and launchers on the ground.
Ofeq 5, 7 and 9 are all currently operational, along with the 700-pound civilian Eros A and B photo satellites that are sometimes used for military purposes, and the IAI-built TecStar -- Ofeq 8 in numerical terms -- which was launched in India Jan. 21, 2008.
Tecstar uses synthetic aperture radar technology to provide images of the Earth's surface.
Since the images are generated by radar rather than by visible light, SAR can perform at night as well daytime and can see through clouds, as well as through rooftops not made of concrete, capabilities beyond Israel's other satellites which rely on cameras.
It's only one a handful of satellites in the world that use such advanced radar technology instead of cameras.
The Indian launch added a new dimension to Israel's military satellite program and may be used again in the future.
Due to the Jewish state's geographical location, ringed on three sides by Arab states, is only able to launch intelligence-gathering satellites westward from its own soil against the Earth's rotation.
That limits the range of orbits over Iran, and latterly Syria. Launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in southeastern India means that Israel can launch eastward, giving it greater flexibility in maintaining round-the-clock surveillance of Iran, whose nuclear program Israel views as an existential threat.
The next spy satellite to be launched is the Opsat 3000. It's expected to carry the most advanced surveillance technology available to Israel, but little is yet known of its development or possible launch date.