(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 7-10)
By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, Oct. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea failed to put a dummy satellite into orbit with its first homegrown space rocket Thursday, dealing a setback to the country's decade-long project to join the elite global space club.
The KSLV-II rocket, also known as Nuri, flew to a target altitude of 700 kilometers but failed to place the 1.5-ton dummy satellite into orbit.
"The test-launch of Nuri-ho was completed. I am proud of it," President Moon Jae-in said in a press briefing at the Naro Space Center in the country's southern coastal village of Goheung. "Regrettably, we did not perfectly reach the goal, but we made a very creditable achievement in the first launch."
The failure underscores the challenges of sending a satellite into orbit, a space launch vehicle technology that South Korea has been seeking to acquire for more than a decade for its space program.
So far, only six countries -- Russia, the United States, France, China, Japan and India -- have developed a space launch vehicle that can carry a more than 1-ton satellite.
Moon said South Korea plans to conduct another launch of the Nuri space rocket next year.
Science and ICT Minister Lim Hye-sook also said the dummy satellite could not reach the intended orbit, because it failed to reach a speed of 7.5 kilometers per second.
She added the 7-ton engine in the third-stage rocket that was supposed to burn for 521 seconds only burned for 475 seconds, slowing down the rocket at the end.
"That the first-stage, fairing and second stage ejected successfully and that the third-stage successfully ignited is still an accomplishment," Lim said in a press briefing.
Officials at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) said they will need to conduct further data analysis to find out why the engine burned for a shorter period of time.
Although Nuri failed to place the dummy satellite into orbit, experts said the attempt marks a meaningful step in South Korea's space program, stressing the success rate for newly developed rockets at first attempt is 30 percent to date.
"Given that this is South Korea's first attempt, with such a huge engine like the 75-ton, a successful launch is really difficult," Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University, said.
"What we have to do is accurately analyze the reasons behind the failure and try again," he added.
South Korea's rocket launches ended in failure in 2009 and 2010.
In 2013, South Korea successfully launched its first-ever Naro space rocket, though its first stage was built in Russia.
The three-stage Nuri rocket uses a clustering of four 75-ton liquid engines in its first stage, a 75-ton liquid engine in the second stage and a 7-ton liquid engine in the third stage.
South Korea has invested nearly 2 trillion won (US$1.8 billion) in building the three-stage Nuri since 2010. The whole process of the launch of Nuri was carried out with homegrown technology on its own soil, including design, production, testing and launch operation.
The launch came amid tensions over North Korea's test-firing of a new submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) Tuesday, the latest in a series of missile launches by the North.
North Korea has also been pushing for a space development program for what it claims is peaceful purposes. But there is outside criticism it's a cover for developing long-range missiles capable of striking the United States.
South Korea, a relative latecomer to the global space development race, has recently ramped up efforts in its space program, with plans to launch its first lunar orbiter next year.
The development of a homegrown space rocket is also crucial, as the transfer of missile technology among countries is strictly controlled under international guidelines, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, which Seoul joined in 2001.
The country's rocket development program had previously been limited by the missile guidelines from the United States, originally put in place in 1979.
The two countries, however, agreed to scrap the restrictions during a summit in May, ensuring full autonomy in South Korea's efforts to develop space launch vehicles.