Israeli spy satellite falls into sea

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

JERUSALEM -- An Israeli spy satellite plunged into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after launch Monday, dealing a severe blow to Israel's attempts to closely monitor potential enemies.

The mishap occurred when boosters for the Ofek-6 satellite failed, the Defense Ministry said after the top-secret launch from the seaside Palmachim air force base in southern Israel. The satellite fell into the sea near the port city of Ashdod.

"An unsuccessful attempt was made to launch into orbit a remote sensing satellite," the ministry said in a terse statement.

The boosters apparently malfunctioned during the third phase of flight, said Isaac Ben-Israel, head of the security studies program at Tel Aviv University, who attended the launch.

The Defense Ministry said it would investigate the failure with Israel Aircraft Industries, which developed the satellite and its launcher. IAI officials refused to comment.

Israel, a world leader in satellite technology, relies heavily on space-based cameras to monitor activities in Arab countries. The Ofek-5 satellite, launched in 2002, overflies Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Israel hoped the Ofek-6 would enhance its coverage of these countries, especially Iran, which is suspected by the United States of developing nuclear weapons, experts said.

"Israel wanted to use this [satellite] to monitor the Iranian nuclear developments and also things like their surface-to-surface missiles," said military expert Shlomo Brom, a retired general.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said a replacement for Ofek-6 would be launched sometime in the future. Ofek means "horizon" in Hebrew.

"It might be with a delay, but it will go up," he said. "We have to be on the satellite map."

Monday's failure cost an estimated $50 million.

Israel believes Iran is moving forward with a nuclear weapons program and has intensified efforts to isolate Tehran diplomatically.

On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom again asked his visiting Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to help contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Lavrov replied that Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran was regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency and did not pose a threat.

The failed launch came during increasingly hostile rhetoric between Israel and Iran, sparked by a successful test-firing of the joint Israel-U.S. Arrow missile defense system in July. A second test last month failed.

Iran responded by testing a new version of its Shihab-3 ballistic missile, which was upgraded in response to Israeli weapons development.

Iran warned that an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities would trigger harsh retaliation. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was nearing completion.

Iran and Israel, which once had close ties, have been at odds since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran routinely calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, while Israel accuses the Tehran regime of backing anti-Israel terrorists.

While Israel has three other spy satellites in orbit, they are not expected to last more than four years, Ben-Israel said. Ofek-6 was more advanced than its predecessors, but Ben-Israel refused to give details.

Israel is second only to the United States in spy satellite technology, Ben-Israel said, adding that Israel is currently developing the Ofek-7 and Techstar, a radar satellite. Both are expected to be ready by 2008.

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