South Korea’s first space rocket blasted off yesterday, less than a week after a launch was aborted at the last minute, but it failed to place a satellite into the designated orbit.
The launch, dubbed a partial success by officials, came less than five months after nuclear-armed rival North Korea incurred international anger by firing its own long-range rocket.
Seoul’s Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 lifted off on schedule at 5pm atop a tail of flame, to the jubilation of officials and guests at the Naro Space Centre.
The Russian-made first stage separated successfully less than five minutes later and the South Korean-built 100kg scientific research satellite was then placed into Earth orbit.
But Science and Technology Minister Ahn Byong-Man said it was not following the designated track.
“All aspects of the launch were normal, but the satellite exceeded its planned orbit and reached an altitude of 360km,” Ahn said.
It should have separated at around 302km.
“A joint probe is under way by South Korean and Russian engineers to find the exact cause,” the minister said.
Korea Aerospace Research Institute head Lee Joo-jin told reporters it was too early to say whether the space center would be able to communicate with the satellite.
Asked if the launch should be seen as a success or failure, Lee said: “We can say it is partially successful, although we have yet to analyze data precisely.”
The satellite’s first signal had originally been expected to come 12 or 13 hours after lift-off.
North Korea, smarting at UN Security Council censure of its April 5 blast-off, had vowed to closely monitor reaction to its neighbor’s launch from Goheung on the south coast.
Pyongyang said it merely put a peaceful communications satellite into orbit and it wants Seoul’s launch also to be referred to the council.
Washington and its allies have said no North Korean satellite was detected in orbit and its launch was in fact a disguised test of a Taepodong-2 missile.
The US State Department said last week that South Korea — in contrast to the North — had developed its program transparently and in keeping with international agreements.
A 2001 accord with Washington bars Seoul from developing missiles with a range of more than 300km.
The launch follows seven delays since 2005. Last week a software problem halted the countdown with just eight minutes to go.
Television showed about 100 invited guests led by South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo applauding and shaking hands after the initial announcement that the satellite was successfully placed into orbit.
They were visibly disappointed when the science minister later announced the hitch.