A leading US scientist who has worked for the White House and NASA made a first appearance in court Tuesday charged with attempting to spy for Israel, which could earn him a sentence of life in prison.

Stewart Nozette, 52, was arrested Monday after a sting operation involving an undercover FBI agent posing as an Israeli agent, the Department of Justice said, adding that there was no wrongdoing by Israel.

Tuesday, Nozette appeared before Judge Deborah Robinson without handcuffs and a bit disheveled to be informed of the charges against him. He motioned to family members in the courtroom and sat quietly next to his lawyer John Kiyonaga.

The judge told Nozette he was charged with attempted espionage and set an October 29 hearing on whether he should remain in detention.

A prominent scientist credited with involvement in the discovery of water on the moon, Nozette had experience working for the US space agency NASA, the Energy Department and even served on the White House's National Space Council in 1989 and 1990, under then-president George H.W. Bush.

He was arrested in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland on Monday.

Nozette is charged with "attempted espionage for knowingly and willfully attempting to communicate, deliver, and transmit classified information relating to the national defense of the United States to an individual (he) believed to be an Israeli intelligence officer."

The investigation appears to have been sparked by his work with an Israeli company, and comments he made to a colleague.

A criminal complaint against says Nozette was employed between November 1998 and January 2008 as a "technical consultant for an aerospace company that was wholly owned by the government of Israel" and received payments totaling approximately 225,000 dollars in exchange for answering questions.

"Nozette informed a colleague that if the United States tried to 'put him in jail' based on an unrelated criminal offense, Nozette would move from the United States to Israel or foreign country A, and tell them everything he knows," the complaint adds.