All systems go for SKorea's first rocket launch


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 19, 2009 at 4:31 AM EDT

All systems are go for the launch of South Korea's first rocket later Wednesday, experts said, as the nation prepares to join Asia's space race despite criticism from rival North Korea.

The science ministry said blast-off was set for 5:00 pm (0800 GMT) after a final review concluded that preparations for the long-delayed launch were complete.

Government officials quoted by Yonhap news agency said fuel and oxidation agents would be injected around 3:00 pm, with the countdown starting 15 minutes before lift-off.

The Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1, partly built by Russia, is scheduled to place a South Korean-built 100-kilogram (220-pound) satellite into orbit.

A successful launch from the Naro Space Centre at Goheung, 475 kilometres (300 miles) south of Seoul, would mean the nation has joined an elite club of nine nations that have put a satellite into orbit using their own rocket.

South Korea has invested 502.5 billion won (419 million dollars) and much national pride in the 33-metre (108-foot) rocket, whose first stage was built by Russia and the second by local engineers.

North Korea, smarting over UN Security Council censure of its own rocket launch in April, has said it will watch closely to see whether world powers also refer the South's launch to the Council.

Pyongyang insists it was unfairly punished for its April 5 launch, saying it merely put a peaceful communications satellite into orbit.

Washington and its allies say no satellite was detected in orbit and the launch was a disguised test of a Taepodong-2 missile.

Seoul has bristled at any comparisons with its neighbour's operation, insisting its own launch is purely for scientific purposes.

"The South Koreans have developed their programme in a very open and transparent way, and in keeping with the international agreements that they have signed on to," US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Tuesday.

"This is in stark contrast to the example set by North Korea, which has not abided by its international agreements."

Washington, concerned about a possible arms race in Northeast Asia, has however sought to restrict South Korea's missile development.

A 2001 accord with the United States bars it from developing missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometres (187 miles).

Science ministry officials have denied Seoul is using Russian technology because Washington refused to transfer know-how.

"That's not because of objections from Washington. We picked Russia after comparing price and other terms," a ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He refused to comment on newspaper reports that Russia had been under pressure from Washington to limit technology transfer.

However Park Jeong-Joo, director of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, told journalists in July that Seoul "experienced a lot of difficulties in securing technology cooperation from developed countries".

South Korea has previously sent 10 satellites into space, using launch vehicles from other countries.

In November 2007 it announced a plan to launch a lunar orbiter by 2020 and send a probe to the moon five years after that.

South Korea unveiled the project one month after China launched its first lunar orbiter and two months after Japan did the same.

In April last year Seoul sent its first astronaut into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Security has been tightened around the space centre, with 30 Navy and Coast Guard ships keeping boats at least three kilometres away.

Four air force jets will be deployed to ensure no civilian aircraft enter the no-fly zone in the launch trajectory.

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