Russian rocket bombs on its first flight

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in Moscow

In a blow to Russian efforts to convert long-range missiles to peaceful uses, an experimental Israeli satellite and two other small probes vanished over Russia's Far East 10 minutes after being launched on an SS-25 rocket originally designed to carry nuclear warheads.

The three satellites, launched early on Tuesday from the military cosmodrome of Plesetsk, about 550 miles north of Moscow, are thought to have plunged into the Sea of Okhotsk near the Kamchatka peninsula, north of Japan. "It's a massive failure, after years of work," said the project leader, Giora Shaviv of Haifa's Technion university. "If it turns out that the launch rocket exploded before putting TechSat in orbit, we will seek financial compensation from the Russians."

It was the debut commercial mission of a converted booster rocket using technology developed in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War arms race for a mobile missile system called Topol. Designed for launch from a 14- wheel truck rather than from an underground silo, the rocket was once one of the most top-secret components of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

Originally a three-stage rocket, the adapted system that failed on Tuesday was known as "Start" and had six stages, according to Itar-Tass news agency. A member of a commission set up to investigate the failure said a fault in the fifth stage had pushed the rocket into an "uncalculated trajectory''.

The re-configured ballistic missile has been promoted by the Russian military as a budget alternative to foreign and other Russian rockets used to put satellites into low orbits around the earth. The military, with a vast stock of ballistic missiles de-commissioned under arms-control agreements, has been keen to break into this still relatively small but growing market.

"It is an attempt by part of the Russian military to cash in what is seen as an expanding market," said Alan Johnstone, a professor of space science at University College London and director of a British-based organisation that promotes a rival Russian low-orbit launch system called Cosmos. "The history of rocketry is littered with failures of this type. The dynamics of combustion are something of a black art." Most of the space-launch market involves placing satellites in much higher geo-stationary orbits. This market, dominated by the European space consortium and the United States, is worth more than $2bn (£1.2bn) a year. But interest in low-orbit satellites is growing, spurred in part by a scheme put forward by Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, for more than 800 satellites in orbit at an altitude of 650 miles. Such a network would help eliminate the time-lag involved in communication through conventional satellites.

The lost Israeli satellite, which was part of a pilot technology development project, was to have been used by amateur radio enthusiasts.

n Jerusalem - Mr Shaviv said reports that the satellite had landed in the sea conflicted with information he had from Russian officials that signals detected from the rocket indicated that both the satellite and rocket were orbiting about 670 km (420 miles) above Earth, AP reports. The failure apparently stemmed from a faulty holding screw, Mr Shaviv said. It was supposed to explode and trigger a coil that pushes the satellites up and out of the rocket canister.