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Israeli Rocket Carrying Key Spy Satellite Crashes

The Ofek-6's mission was to observe arms programs of Iran and other adversaries. A missile interceptor test fell short last week.

September 07, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel's efforts to closely monitor Iran's missile program and to bolster its own early warning systems suffered a setback Monday when the launch of a sophisticated spy satellite failed.

A rocket that was to have carried the Ofek-6 remote-sensing satellite into orbit crashed into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after its afternoon liftoff from Israel's sprawling Palmachim air and missile base south of Tel Aviv.

It was the second failure of a high-tech Israeli military system in less than a week. The missile interceptor Arrow II, in a test-firing off the coast of California on Thursday, proved unable to hit its target. Israeli officials, however, said it had succeeded in identifying the warhead of the dummy missile it was supposed to hit.

No one on the ground was injured in the failed Ofek launch, which was not announced in advance for security reasons.

Residents of Israel's southern coastal communities reported seeing an intensely bright flash overhead, which briefly caused some people to panic, thinking that a passenger jet had been attacked or a missile fired in the vicinity.

The Defense Ministry issued a brief statement acknowledging that the launch had failed and the cause of the malfunction was being investigated.

The state-of-the-art Ofek-6 was developed by an Israeli consortium led by giant, state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries. The satellite, which was supposed to have had a five-year lifespan, was intended as a major upgrade of the Jewish state's surveillance of arms programs of other regional powers, particularly Iran.

Israel suspects Iran of developing nuclear weapons and considers it the gravest external threat it faces. An ongoing FBI investigation of whether Israel spied on the United States is focused on a Pentagon analyst's possible transfer of sensitive documents involving Iran and its weapons capabilities.

Initial reports on the failed launch of the Ofek -- which means "horizon" in Hebrew -- were conflicting. Some analysts said it appeared that the satellite's boosters malfunctioned, but Israeli reports cited defense officials blaming the breakdown on the locally produced Shavit rocket that carried it.

Israel has launched other satellites into orbit, including the previous generation of the Ofek, which was sent aloft in 2002. Israeli launches are complicated by the need to aim them over the Mediterranean to avoid the airspace of Arab neighbors.

The cost of the destroyed satellite was not disclosed by the Israeli military or the consortium that developed it.

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