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Land Launch Delay Creates Stir in Israel

Land Launch Delay Creates Stir in Israel
A Land Launch Zenit-3SLB booster carrying the Amos 3 communications satellite sits atop its Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad at the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome. The rocket's planned April 24, 2008 launch was aborted 90 seconds before liftoff due to ground equipment glitches. (Image credit: RSC Energia.)

TEL AVIV,Israel -- The debut of the Land Launch Zenit-3SLB rocket carrying the Israeli Amos-3telecommunications satellite was aborted just 90 seconds before a plannedThursday liftoff due to a ground equipment glitch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome inKazakhstan.

Russianspace agency officials and executives at Spacecom, the Tel Aviv-based owner andoperator of the Israeli-built Amos-series spacecraft, attributed the glitch toa malfunctioning transporter-erector crane that failed to separate at asufficiently safe distance from the three-stage rocket.

"Thesupporting arm of the launcher did not reach nominal separation distance fromthe launcher, and it was decided to delay the launch until the requiredinspections are performed," Spacecom announced after the aborted Thursdaylaunch.

Originally plannedfor late 2007, the Amos-3 satellite is the first payload for Land Launch, whichuses the same Russian- and Ukrainian-built rocket as the Sea Launch venture butoperates from Baikonur rather than an ocean-going platform. Sea Launch doesmarketing for the affiliated Land Launch venture.

Amos-3 isthe latest in the series of geostationary communications satellites built byIsrael Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI). Weighing 1,270 kilograms fully fueled,the $170 million satellite features 12 Ku-band transponders and two wide-bandKa-band transponders, steerable antennas, and an 18-year operational lifespan.

SpacecomChief Executive David Pollack said it would take a few days to complete therequisite inspections, but stressed that Amos-3 and its launcher remain readyfor launch. He noted that it would take at least a day to drain hazardous fuelfrom the third stage of the launcher; and "another day or two orthree" to ascertain that all ancillary equipment is functioning properly.

"Thecountdown was progressing perfectly, and everything was going smoothly ... upuntil a minute and a half before launch," said Pollack.

Themechanical malfunction prompted disappointment and embarrassment in Jerusalem,where Cabinet members, foreign dignitaries and industry executives had gatheredat the home of Israeli President Shimon Peres to witness the launch.

In anextraordinarily elaborate pre-launch fete organized by Spacecom as part ofIsrael's 60th Anniversary Independence Day celebrations, presidential guestsmonitoring the live feed from Kazakhstan were visibly discomfited by theaborted countdown.

And whilePeres sought to shift focus from the aborted launch attempt to more positiveaspects of Israel's technological achievements in space, government and industryofficials quietly criticized Spacecom for its public relations pursuit.

"Unexpectedproblems happen all the time in this business, and people always need to beprepared for potential disappointment," said Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman ofthe Israel Space Agency and a member of the governing Kadima party in theIsraeli Knesset.

Ben-Israelsaid the delayed launch is insignificant and that the satellite is among theworld's most advanced for one with its relatively small size. "The uniqueadded value of this satellite is its bandwidth-to-kilo ratio, and in thisregard, it's a leader among [geostationary] communications satellites," hesaid.

In an Thursdayinterview, a senior Israeli industry executive said several members of theSpacecom board of directors, as well as officials at IAI, warned Pollack andothers not to link the Amos-3 launch so directly with presidential prestige andthe nation's Independence Day festivities.

"Thewhole thing was a huge embarrassment and highly irregular. Our style has alwaysbeen to avoid big expectations and big promises. But they wanted to go for theglory, and this huge promotion they created just blew up in their faces,"he said.

Inresponse, Pollack adamantly insisted, "Great things come to those whodare. If we're afraid, we'll achieve nothing." He said the aborted launchdoes not detract from Israel's technological achievements in space, nor does itimpact negatively on national prestige.

"What'sthe big deal? There was good food, good music ... and people had a good reasonto visit the holy city of Jerusalem during the [Jewish Passover] holiday,"Pollack said.

Pollacksaid "this brief delay" would have no material impact on Spacecom orcustomers signed up to receive Amos-3 services.

Pollacksaid services for Amos-3 already are fully booked, and that the company plansto launch three additional satellites in the coming four years. "Within afew short years, we aim to have an operational fleet of five extremelyhigh-performance spacecraft to serve our growing base of customers," hesaid.

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