Lightning ignited three small NASA rockets, causing them to be launched accidentally from Wallops Island, Va., Tuesday night, officials said yesterday.

The same storm knocked the nation's prime weather satellites out of service for several hours, depriving Americans of satellite images normally seen on television news.

At least three lightning bolts hit a satellite ground receiving station at Wallops, overwhelming defensive measures including lightning rods, surge suppressors and a grounding system, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said.

The station could not obtain weather images from GOES-West, the stationary satellite watching the western half of the nation, from 7:15 p.m. EDT Tuesday until 4:15 a.m. yesterday, the agency said. GOES-East images were blanked out from 7:30 p.m. until 1 a.m.

At nearby Wallops Island, four solid-fuel rockets were on the pad. One, an Orion, was awaiting launch to check lightning's effect on the ionosphere, and two were small pacer rockets that help set tracking systems, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said. These had been fitted with igniters, and the fourth was not.

"When the lightning hit, it ignited both {pacer} rockets and the Orion vehicle," said John L. Parks Jr., range safety officer at the Wallops Flight Facility. He said a single bolt apparently "hit the launcher itself and somehow induced ignition of the igniter. We haven't determined the exact mechanism."

The three rockets were valued at less than $50,000, NASA said.

The pacer rockets were set at a 75-degree angle and apparently flew their normal course to 15,000 feet and 2 1/2 miles downrange. Because of the unplanned firing, they were not tracked.

The Orion, however, was parked almost horizontally. Parks said the rocket simply shot forward and hit the water 300 feet away.

The launch pad had been cleared, launch crews were in the blockhouse, and no one was reported hurt.

"We have launched more than 13,000 rockets, and this is the first occurrence we have had of this type," Parks said.

The launch pads are 150 feet apart, but Parks said there is a common ground.