PARIS -- European space officials say they are investigating whether someone sabotaged the launch of an Ariane rocket a month ago but that a technical flaw appeared the most likely cause of the failed launch.
'I can confirm today that, with the knowledge we have, there is not much to attach to the theory of sabotage,' said Frederic d'Allest, chairman of Arianespace, the French-led consortium that builds, markets and launches the Ariane rocket for the European Space Agency.
'You can never rule out anything 100 percent. There could be a very intelligent form of sabotage, putting something in the right place at the right time,' he told a news conference Monday.
'As of today, all our checks give no positive indication of sabotage or ill interest. Sabotage seems to be a very, very weak possibility, but we have not finished our studies on this,' d'Allest said.
He said the fact that two of the last four Ariane rocket launches were aborted due to malfunctions led them to theorize the problem could be sabotage rather than mechanical failure.
Both failures resulted from the inability of the third and final stage to ignite properly and both had to be detonated by mission control.
D'Allest said a technical flaw in the third stage was the most likely reason for the May 30 failure of an Ariane 2 rocket four minutes and 36 seconds after liftoff with the loss of a $55 million Intelsat communications satellite.
The last Ariane failure -- the fourth in 18 launches -- has left the West without a reliable means to launch satellites.
Since February 1984, 13 satellites have been lost during launch or because of malfunctions during oribital operations. Eleven of those were American payloads and two were launched by Ariane.
The failures have left the Soviet Union as the only country able to send heavy payloads into space. It announced recently it would establish a system to launch commercial satellites.
D'Allest said after the news conference that security officials at the French space center in Kourou, French Guiana, were investigating employee records, particularly those with access to the launching pad.
'We trust our people, but we are taking precautions to make sure we can continue trusting them,' d'Allest said.
He said he and Defense Minister Andre Giraud were both in the United States last week but did not discuss the sabotage theory with U.S. officials.
The 19th launch had been scheduled in August. D'Allest said the latest failure would cause a delay of at least five months and that the next rocket may not be launched until March of next year.
Arianespace had planned to launch three more rockets this year and a total of eight next year. He said he did not believe the failure would have a 'disastrous' effect on the schedule.
He said technicians believe the third stage failed to ignite due to a problem in the sensitive mixture of liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel that propels the satellite into orbit.
Ruud Lust, director-general of the European Space Agency, said it would cost an estimated $10 million to conduct tests on the igniter system in an effort to determine the problem.
D'Allest and Lust reported the results of an independent inquiry board that investigated the failure. They said they should better know this fall when the next rocket will be launched.