SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is counting down to its first space launch on Wednesday that will likely open the door to its nascent rocket program and rile neighbor North Korea, hit by U.N. sanctions after its own rocket launch in April.
South Korea, which has relied on other countries to launch its satellites, plans to send a domestically built satellite into orbit on its rocket Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1, also known as Naro-1, from its space center in the south of country.
The Naro-1 is 33 meters (108 ft) long and the two-stage rocket was built at a cost of 502.5 billion won ($400 million), according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.
It is supposed to launch a 100-kg (220.5-lb) satellite into orbit that will monitor the Earth’s radiant energy. Lift-off is planned for 0740 GMT Wednesday at a site about 350 km (220 miles) south of Seoul.
South Korea has relied on Russia’s help with the Naro-1, with its Khrunichev space production center building the first stage, providing technical assistance and conducting tests.
“If we complete the development of the first-stage engine, we will then have the power to launch on our own. This is a tedious task though,” said Yoon Young-bin, an aerospace specialist at Seoul National University.
South Korea wants to build a rocket on its own by 2018 and send a probe to monitor the moon by 2025. It also wants to develop a commercial service to launch satellites.
But it lags far behind Japan, China, India, and to some extent North Korea, and is betting that after its first successful launch it can use its technical prowess to catch up quickly with its rivals.
South Korea’s space agency tried to play down expectations for the launch, saying in a report that only about 30 percent of countries’ first attempts to put a satellite into orbit succeed.
The South’s satellite launch serves as a point of pride and irritation for North Korea, which in April shot off a long-range rocket and was hit by U.N. punishment because the move was widely seen as a disguised missile test that violated U.N. resolutions.
North Korea, whose economy is about 2 percent the size of the South’s, has boasted about sending a satellite into orbit, circling the globe playing revolutionary songs, ahead of its richer southern neighbor.
U.S. and South Korean officials have said nothing was put into orbit.
North Korea chastised the United Nations for punishing it for the April launch and a Foreign Ministry spokesman said this month the state will be closely watching how the world body reacts to the South’s.
Apart from North Korea, few doubt the South’s launch will be anything but for its civilian space program. But the launch does raise questions about implications for regional security.
South Korea has an agreement with its U.S. military ally not to develop long-range missiles, which was reached to prevent an arms race in the economically vibrant North Asia region.
Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner and Nick Macfie