TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- As tension mounts between Iran and Israel, both countries are planning to launch new space satellites to peer into each other's military domains as they prepare for possible conflict.
Israel, which has the most advanced defense industry in the region, is technologically years ahead of the Islamic Republic, but the Iranians are racing to narrow the gap.
And putting satellites into space is the best way of developing the rockets that will become intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Israel already has an arsenal of Jericho missiles buried in silos in the Judean Hills. Iran is working on matching that.
It will take a few years, but every step that takes Tehran closer to that objective, such as the satellite launches it plans, increases Israel's alarm.
Meantime, the United Arab Emirates, which lies across the Gulf from Iran, is nearing completion of a strategic space intelligence center that will ensure 24-hour surveillance of Iran and be able to identify missile launches.
The center, being built in Abu Dhabi with the help of France's 4C Controls, had been scheduled to become operational in mid-2009, but is still being fine-tuned.
It will process the imagery provided by Italy's COSMO-SkyMed system and the Ikonos satellite used by the emirate air force. Saudi Arabia is considering a similar system.
The emirates' project is a measure of the concern felt in the Gulf Arab states about Iran's growing technological advances -- and the arsenal of Shehab-3 intermediate-range missiles it is now believed to have operationally deployed.
Israel already has several surveillance satellites in orbit, but The Jerusalem Post reports that a new satellite, Ofek-8, is expected to be lofted into space soon "to beef up intelligence gathering in the face of Iran's pursuit of nuclear power."
Ofek-8, the latest in a series that began with the experimental Ofek-1 launched in September 1988, will be launched atop a three-stage Shavit rocket -- which uses the same the propulsion unit as the Jericho-2 -- and thrust into low orbit.
"This will significantly boost our intelligence-gathering capabilities," the Post quoted a senior defense official as saying.
The Ofek-8 will weigh about 720 pounds -- more than double that of Ofek-1 -- and will complete an orbit every 90 minutes.
"While the new satellite will not represent a significant technological breakthrough -- it will carry the same camera as the Ogek-7 -- it will provide the Israel Defense Forces with greater flexibility in utilizing its space assets," the Post noted.
In early 2008 Israeli also launched the TecSar spy satellite from India, extending its surveillance over Iran. Satellites launched from Israel have to travel westward, against the Earth's rotation, to eliminate the possibility of debris falling on Arab states.
While that demonstrates that Israel has the rocket power to deliver a nuclear payload well beyond the Middle East, it also limits satellite capabilities over Iran. Launches from India can go the other way.
Ofek and TecSar, which has radar technology that can produce real-time images in darkness and all weather, are built by Israel Aerospace Industries.
After Ofek-8, Israel plans to launch Opsat 3000 later in the decade. The word is it will be capable of unprecedented optical remote sensing with extremely high resolution.
Iran is expected to unveil three new satellites this month amid growing concerns it has accelerated its program to develop an ICBM through its expanding space program.
In January Iranian Communications Minister Reza Taghipour identified the satellites as Tolou (Sunrise), Ya Mahdi and Mesbah-2 (Lantern), but gave no launch dates.
Tolou was built by Sa Iran, also known as Iran Electronics Industries, which is affiliated with Iran's Defense Ministry.
Taghipour described Tolou as an "experimental satellite," but Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi called it a "reconnaissance satellite."
That suggested it would have military applications, although given Iran's supposed level of space technology its surveillance capabilities would be extremely limited and far inferior to Israel's.
Iran launched its first indigenous satellite, Omid (Hope), in February 2009, marking an unexpectedly advanced level of expertise in multi-stage rocket development and in the crucial separation process in flight that caused some concern in Israel and the West.