The Naro space rocket with the payload of a science
satellite lifts off from the launch pad at the space center in Goheung,
South Jeolla Province, Thursday evening. At right are three sequential
shots taken from footage by television station KBS that show, from top,
the rocket exploding. / Korea Times
GOHEUNG, South Jeolla Province ― The second flight of the Korea
Space Launch Vehicle I (KSLV-I) ended in failure with an explosion
Thursday. The rocket, carrying a satellite aimed at observing the
atmosphere and oceans, blasted off from the Naro Space Center here at
5:01 p.m., but exploded about two minutes later.
The spectacular letdown adds to the fears that the country's Herculean
investment of money and effort into its first home-launched rocket may
never produce the desired returns.
The Naro spaceport lost contact with the rocket 137 seconds after
liftoff, when it was believed to be at an altitude of around 70
kilometers, which appears to be the moment when it exploded, according
to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), the country's space
Sources close to the launch project told The Korea Times that first
indications suggest a failure of the rocket's main, RD-151 rocket
engine, developed by Russia's NPO Energomash, as its performance was
seen to be reduced considerably as the vehicle began to veer off
course. The rocket's payload, the Science and Technology Satellite No.
2 (STSAT-2), was also destroyed.
A number experts of also suggested that the country was fortunate to
avoid a disaster as ground control was unable to command the wayward
rocket to self-destruct with communications being out, which may have
led to shuddering consequences had debris crashed onto land.
The doomed KSLV-I launch was the first launch since one in August last
year, when the rocket achieved its desired speed and height, but
failed to deliver its payload satellite into orbit.
``The Naro (KSLV-1) flew normally until 137.19 seconds after liftoff,
when the communications with the ground tracking facilities were
severed. The footage from the camera installed on the upper part of
the rocket suddenly brightened at that moment, which suggests that the
rocket's first stage exploded during flight,'' said Ahn Byung-man,
South Korea's minister of education, science and technology, before
bustling out of the spaceport's briefing room refusing to respond to
questions from hounding media members.
KARI later confirmed that the debris has fallen in the waters off the
southern coast of Jeju Island.
Tak Min-jae, a rocket scientist at the Korea Advanced Institute of
Science and Technology (KAIST) who worked as an adviser on the KSLV-I
project, said it was extremely rare for a rocket to explode after
advancing that much into flight.
``Most rocket explosions occur around blastoff, and the rocket seemed
to be right on course before the supposed explosion. This could only
be explained by a failure of the first stage's main engine,'' Tak
``There could be hundreds of reasons why a rocket engine fails, but a
possibility could be a malfunctioning turbo pump, which may have
pumped in too much fuel into the engine. The flight-termination system
is useless when the communications are killed, and you can't blame
ground control for failing to command the rocket to self-destruct at
an earlier moment when it was moving accordingly with its flight
The part-Russian, part Korean rocket is a result of a 502.5 billion
won ($418 million) investment. Russia's Khrunichev State Research and
Production Space Center, which is providing the core technologies for
the Korean rocket project, designed and developed the KSLV-I
first-stage, which holds the rocket engine and liquid-fuel propulsion
KARI developed the KSLV-I second-stage, which is designed to hold the
satellite and release it into proper position.
Now, with KSLV-I reduced to sea junk after its first two tries, the
South Koreans and Russians are expected to engage in an ugly game of
finger pointing, which may determine whether the rocket will get
another chance at the Naro spaceport or not.
The Russians are under contract to provide at least two launches, and
a possible third should their technology related to the KSLV-I
first-stage be found responsible for the failure of any of the first
two attempts. KARI was guilty for the bungled first launch, but should
the explosion of the KSLV-I first stage be confirmed as the reason for
Thursday's crash, the Russians could be roped in for a third try
sometime next year.
Kim Seung-jo, a Seoul National University (SNU) aerospace scientist
who participated in a government panel investigating the failure of
the first launch, agreed with KARI's theory that a malfunction of the
rocket's first stage engine likely doomed the recent flight.
``The KSLV-I's main telemetry system was installed in the second stage
and this was likely damaged by an explosion in the first stage, which
explains the communications breakdown. This points to the
possibilities of a flawed rocket design or an error during the
assembly process,'' he said.
``But nonetheless, the process of agreeing on the cause of the
explosion will likely be a very long and frustrating experience.''