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S. Korea's failed satellite launch sets back space effort

After its launch on a Russian-made rocket, the satellite missed its required trajectory. S. Korea has taken an aggressive stand in staying technologically in step with its neighbors.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 25, 2009

The Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 blasts off from the Naro Space Centre in Goheung, south of Seoul, on Tuesday.

Reuters

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South Korea suffered an embarrassing failure Tuesday to put a satellite into orbit via a Russian-made rocket. Crowds cheered the launch of the rocket carried live on all national TV networks, but the government soon had to explain a disappointment in space.

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After the immense buildup for what would have been the first satellite put into space from South Korean soil, officials said the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 had gone far beyond the requisite trajectory for the satellite.

The education and science minister, Ahn Byong-man, in a facesaving comment to the South Korean media, called the launch, postponed seven times, a "half-success," since the rocket had roared off from the Naro Space Center pad as planned. He indicated, moreover, that South Korea would go through with another planned launch within a year.

"It may be a tremendous disappointment," says Kim Tae-woo, vice president and nuclear policy specialist at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. "South Korea failed on the first attempt."

Mr. Kim, notes, however, that the success ratio for launching satellites from other countries "is less than 30 percent," that South Korea has launched satellites from elsewhere, and that two of them are still functioning.

"South Korea is already at an international level in manufacturing those satellites," he says. "We have to continue exploration of space."

Implications for proliferation

The launch was intended to make South Korea the 10th nation to put a satellite into orbit from its own soil. The plan became a matter of controversy in view of the implications for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as North Korea's launch of a long-range missile in April that the North said was carrying a satellite.

South Korea turned to Russia to build the two-stage rocket needed to send the satellite into orbit after the United States, 10 years ago, banned the transfer of the technology as a violation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The concern is that the same rocket used to propel the satellite into space could also carry a weapon of mass destruction to a distant target.

The United States led protests in the UN Security Council after North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 missile on April 5. North Korea claimed to have put a satellite into orbit. But the North American Aerospace Command in Colorado said North Korea had not launched a satellite. Scientists believe North Korea had mounted a dummy as a pretext for testing the missile. The US then led the move in the UN to impose stern sanctions on North Korea after its second underground nuclear test on May 25.

Keeping up with Japan

South Korea has been aggressive about its desire to launch satellites in view of Japan's success in putting satellites into orbit.

Neither Japan nor South Korea, however, has nuclear warheads though both have nuclear power plants, and Japanese and South Korean scientists are assumed to have the expertise to develop them.

After confirming plans seven years ago for South Korean and Russian engineers to work on the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and Russia's Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center signed a space technology pact in 2004. Two years later, South Korea and Russia signed a technology safeguard agreement.

"Why are countries so sensitive about South Korea's launch of a rocket?" asks Kim Tae Woo. "South Korean technology is already at an international level in manufacturing those satellites. What South Korea should do is abide by international norms."

Will a US special envoy soon head to Pyongyang?

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