Israeli spy satellite launch fails

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

TEL AVIV Israel has failed to place an advanced military reconnaissance satellite into orbit.

Israeli officials said the Ofeq-6 satellite fell to earth on Monday during a launch by Israel's Shavit booster rocket. They said the Shavit was successfully launched and completed its two stages. But the third stage of the flight, in which the Ofeq-6's engine was to have placed the satellite into orbit, failed. The malfunction was traced to an engine subsystem.

"An unsuccessful attempt was made to launch into orbit a remote-sensing satellite," the Defense Ministry said. "The malfunction in the third stage of launch was being examined by an engineering team."

The state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries has been the prime contractor of the Ofeq satellite program, Middle East Newsline reported. IAI has also designed and produced the Shavit booster in cooperation with Rafael, Israel Armament Development Authority.

"The missile worked as expected, but the satellite had a malfunction," [Res.] Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, former chief of the Defense Ministry's Research Directorate, said. "As a result, the satellite did not enter orbit."

Officials set the value of the Ofeq-6 project at $60 million. They stressed that the unsuccessful launch -- caused by a signal failure to the satellite's propulsion system -- would not harm any technology developed for the satellite's remote-sensing imagery payload.

"This was financial damage," an official said. "It's the same as if an F-16I [aircraft] crashed."

The loss of Ofeq-6 marked the second launch failure of an Israeli military space satellite over the last three attempts. In May 2002, the Shavit succeeded in placing the Ofeq-5 into orbit. But in 1998, the solid-fuel booster failed to complete the launch of the Ofeq-4, which led to a reassessment of Israel's space program.

Israel has sought to place at least three reconnaissance satellites into orbit to ensure constant coverage of nuclear, missile and conventional military threats in the Middle East. Officials said the main threat comes from Iran, which has produced the Shihab-3 intermediate-range missile as well as developed uranium enrichment capability.

Officials said the Ofeq-6, launched from the Palmahim air force base south of Tel Aviv, was regarded as one of the most advanced small-sized, low-earth-orbit satellites in the world with a greater resolution than that of the Ofeq-5. Industry sources said the space camera installed by Elbit Systems subsidiary, El-Op Electro-Optics Industries, was meant to have a resolution of about 0.6 meters.

A major obstacle of the Ofeq program has been Israel's decision to fire the Shavit to the west over the Mediterranean Sea. They said a westerly launch -- against the earth's orbit -- required far more thrust than firing the Shavit eastward. The Ofeq, which weighs about 300 kilograms, has been in placed elliptical orbit at an altitude that ranges between 370 and 600 kilometers.

Officials said Israel has fired the Shavit to the west to prevent either the booster or the satellite payload from falling into Arab countries in case of launch failure. They said the Ofeq-6 and the Shavit dropped into the eastern Mediterranean near Greece and would probably not be recovered.

Currently, Israel has one military reconnaissance satellite operating in orbit. Since 2002, the Ofeq-5 has been relaying images of vital facilities in the Middle East to an Israeli ground station. The shelf life of the Ofeq was expected to be expire in 2006.

Israel's military has also employed the Eros-1A dual-use satellite, launched in December 2000, for back-up reconnaissance capabilities. IAI, contractor of the Eros, has planned to launch Eros-B1 in 2006, a two-year delay from its original timetable.

On Aug. 29, Israel and the United States failed in a test of the Arrow-2 missile interceptor, also designed and produced by IAI. Officials said the Arrow-2's test against a target meant to simulate the Scud D medium-range missile was not connected to the production line of either the Shavit or Ofeq.

Officials said the Defense Ministry did not expect another launch of the Ofeq until at least 2007. Still, they said, the ministry would seek a special budget allocation to advance Israel's military space program and ensure an Ofeq launch over the next two years.

"The program will be delayed slightly," [Res.] Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu, an Israeli air force commander, said. "But with a lot of effort, motivation and budget, this gap can be closed within two years."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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