South Korea succeeded Wednesday in its third attempt to launch a satellite into orbit, meeting a high-stakes challenge to national pride a month after rival North Korea succeeded in the same mission.
A positive outcome after successive failures in 2009 and 2010 was critical to ensuring the future of South Korea’s launch program and realizing its ambition of membership of an elite global space club.
The 140-tonne Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV-I) blasted off at 4:00 p.m. local time from the Naro Space Center on the south coast, reaching its target altitude nine minutes later and deploying its payload satellite.
Scientists and officials gathered at the space centre cheered, applauded and hugged each other as the satellite was released.
“After analyzing various data, the Naro rocket successfully put the science satellite into designated orbit,” Science Minister Lee Ju-Ho told reporters at the space centre.
“This is the success of all our people,” Mr. Lee said.
South Korea was a late entrant into the high-cost world of space technology and exploration and repeated failures had raised questions over the viability of the launch program.
“This success has put the country’s entire rocketry programme back on track,” said independent space analyst Morris Jones.
They were under enormous pressure, given the earlier failures and the North’s success last month, and this will give them confidence and, of course, secure critical political and financial support for the future,” Mr. Jones said.
But South and North Korea still face a long slog to catch up with the other Asian powers with a proven track record of multiple launches – China, Japan and India.
Initially scheduled for Oct. 26, Wednesday’s launch had been twice postponed for technical reasons.
The delay meant that rival North Korea beat the South by launching a satellite into orbit on Dec. 12.
The North’s launch was condemned by the international community as a disguised ballistic missile test, resulting in UN sanctions that in turn triggered a threat by Pyongyang to carry out a nuclear test.
Wednesday’s mission was the last under the South’s current agreement with Russia, which agreed to provide the first stage for a maximum of three rockets.
Seoul’s space ambitions were restricted for many years by its main military ally the United States, which feared that a robust missile or rocket program would accelerate a regional arms race, especially with North Korea.
After joining the Missile Technology Control Regime in 2001, South Korea made Russia its go-to space partner, but the relationship has not been an easy one.
In 2009, the rocket achieved orbit but faulty release mechanisms on the second stage prevented proper deployment of the satellite.
The second effort in 2010 saw the rocket explode two minutes into its flight, with both Russia and South Korea pointing the finger of blame at each other.
South Korea has committed itself to developing a totally indigenous three-stage, liquid-fuelled rocket capable of carrying a 1.5-tonne payload into orbit by 2021.
Hundreds of people gathered in front of a giant television screen in Seoul cheered as the rocket blasted off, and again when the satellite deployment was confirmed.
“National prestige has really been the main driving force behind this program,” Mr. Morris said.
It is still unclear if South Korea intends to commercialize its launch vehicles once an indigenous carrier is developed.
“That would take at least seven years, developing a prototype and then building up a launch track record to attract commercial clients,” Mr. Jones said.