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Historic South Korean satellite launch fails

Posted: August 25, 2009

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Using a smattering of Russian and domestic technology, South Korea launched a small rocket toward space Tuesday, but the booster's nine-minute flight apparently failed to inject its payload into orbit.

Korean media outlets immediately hailed the launch as a success, but officials grimly declared the flight suffered a failure a few hours later.

Moscow-based Khrunichev, the Russian space contractor that builds Proton rockets, provided the Korea Space Launch Vehicle's first stage. South Korea built the second stage and payload shroud.

In a press release Tuesday, Khrunichev declared the kerosene-fueled first stage worked as planned during the first four minutes of launch.

"The Russian side of the joint project should regard the launch as successful while for the Korean side it is only partially so," Khrunichev said in a written statement.

"Roscosmos entities have been responsible for the Russian-made first stage. It has performed nominally," the statement said.

Korean officials did not offer any details on the potential cause of the failure.

The milestone mission began with launch at 0800 GMT (4 a.m. EDT) Tuesday from the new Naro Space Center on the southern flank of the Korean peninsula.

Liftoff was at 5 p.m. local time in South Korea.

The first launch attempt was scrubbed last week when falty software triggered an automatic abort with less than eight minutes left in the countdown. Engineers removed the rocket from the pad for a few days as officials analyzed the issue.

The rocket returned to the cliffside pad on Sunday.

The 108-foot-tall Korea Space Launch Vehicle was pushed skyward by a Russian main engine, seemingly listing back and forth as the icy white booster soared into clear blue skies and disappeared from view over the Sea of Japan.

Within four minutes, the kerosene-burning RD-191 engine was supposed to guide the rocket from its oceanfront launch pad to more than 120 miles high. The Russian-built first stage was programmed to separate from the KSLV's second stage a few seconds later.

After coasting to an altitude of nearly 190 miles, the Korean-made upper stage was to ignite and consume its load of solid propellant in less than a minute to reach the blazing speed necessary to achieve Earth orbit.

Plans called for the launcher to deploy its small 219-pound payload, named STSAT 2, at the nine-minute point.

But something went wrong at some point during the mission, stranding the satellite on the wrong trajectory.

The rocket, also named the Naro, was aiming for an egg-shaped orbit with a high point about 932 miles and a low point of 186 miles, according to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, or KARI.

About the size of a washing machine, STSAT 2 carried a microwave radiometer to measure radiation energy in Earth's atmosphere. The small satellite also had a laser reflector system to allow ground stations to precisely track its orbit.

In the making since 2002, the Naro 1 rocket's development was a partnership between KARI and Khrunichev.

Khrunichev provided hardware for the rocket's first stage, which is based on the Universal Rocket Module the company developed for Russia's new Angara line of rockets.

The Angara launchers, which Russia hopes will eventually launch a wide range of spacecraft, have been afflicted with numerous delays and the rocket's lower half first flew from South Korea.

The stage is powered by an RD-191 engine based on similar powerplants with near-stellar records on the Zenit and Atlas 5 rockets.

The Naro 1 rocket cost more than $400 million to design, build and test, but South Korean officials were openly wary of their odds for success before launch. Leaders said they expected the rocket could fail because many new vehicles experience problems during launch, according to news reports.

Tuesday's flight was to propel South Korea into an elite group of nations that have successfully launched rockets into orbit.

South Korea would have been the 10th country to achieve that mark since the Space Age dawned with the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957. The United States followed with the launch of Explorer 1 the next year.

France, Japan, China, the United Kingdom, India and Israel later developed and successfully flew their own space launches in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Iran joined the club in February when it launched an experimental communications satellite with a Safir 2 rocket.

North Korea, which reportedly attempted a failed satellite launch in April, criticized the international response to South Korea's foray into the launch arena.

There was an outcry from the international community following North Korea's launch, which U.S. officials said was likely a disguised missile test.

"The South Koreans have developed their program in a very open and transparent way and in keeping with the international agreements that they have signed onto," said U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

"This is in stark contrast to the example set by North Korea, which has not abided by its international agreements," Kelly said in a press briefing last week.