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Last Updated: Monday, 6 September, 2004, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
Israeli spy satellite destroyed
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Ofeq-5, IAI
The destroyed satellite was due to replace Ofeq-5
An attempt by Israel to put into orbit a sophisticated spy satellite has failed, its defence ministry says.

The Shavit rocket carrying the Ofeq-6 satellite exploded in mid-air over the southern coastal city of Ashdod shortly after launch. No one was hurt.

Israel wanted the satellite to keep an eye on its neighbours, especially Iran.

Israel developed its own series of spy satellites, launched on its own rockets, because of the reluctance of the US to share space intelligence.

Secret launch

"The malfunction is being investigated by experts from the Ministry of Defense and the involved industries," the statement said.

Ofeq-6 was built by Israel Aircraft Industries and was intended to have provided intelligence to Israel as it passed over the Middle East.

The launch took place secretly at the national missile testing range at an air base south of Kibbutz Palmachim.

Unlike other countries, Israel launches its satellites into space westward, against the Earth's spin, so that any failed vehicles cannot fall on to an Arab country.

To do this, Israel requires a stronger rocket than would be the case for a vehicle launching to the east and receiving assistance from the Earth's rotation.

Major setback

Israel currently operates the Ofeq-5 spy satellite, which was launched in 2002. It has a four-year lifespan and its makers say it is the only satellite in its class that produces such high-resolution pictures from orbit.

The failure of Ofeq-6 is a major setback for Israel that will impact Israeli-Arab politics.

It was a far more sophisticated spy satellite than Ofeq-5 and was believed to be capable of night-time surveillance. If Ofeq-5 fails there is now a chance that Israel could lose its space surveillance capability.

It plans an even better spy satellite in 5-6 years' time and the satellite that was destroyed was intended to bridge the gap.

Israel embarked on its own spy satellite programme in the 1970s when the US turned down requests for intelligence.

In 1973, the US withheld satellite data from Israel before the Yom Kippur war when Israeli officials said they were only getting "crumbs" from America.

Israel launched its first satellite into space using its own rocket in 1988.

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