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S.Korea rocket blows up minutes after blast-off

A South Korean rocket trying to put a satellite into orbit apparently exploded Thursday less than three minutes after blast-off, dealing another blow to Seoul’s dreams of joining Asia’s space race.

Science and Technology Minister Ahn Byong-Man told reporters the Naro-I rocket was thought to have blown up 137 seconds after blast-off, the same time as ground control lost contact with it.

“The Naro appeared to have exploded in flight,” Ahn said, adding that Russian and South Korean engineers were trying to determine the cause.

Lee Joo-Jin, head of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, said “a sudden flash” could be seen through a camera mounted on the rocket.

South Korea was trying to join an exclusive club currently numbering nine nations that have put a satellite into orbit using a domestically assembled rocket.

Its first attempt failed last August when fairings on the nose cone of the Naro-1 did not open properly so that the satellite could be released.

Spectators waving national flags jumped and danced jubilantly as they watched the blast-off from the Naro Space Center on the south coast at 5:01 pm (0801 GMT).

But engineers lost all contact after 137 seconds when the rocket was at an altitude of 70 kilometres (43 miles) and officials later said it appeared to have exploded.

The scientific satellite had been due to separate from the rocket at an altitude of 302 km and to deploy its solar panels about nine minutes after blast-off.

“I cannot definitely say now but there appears to have been a problem with the first stage of the rocket,” Lee Jae-Woo, a space expert at Seoul’s Konkuk University, told YTN television. “Imperfect combustion can be seen.”

This week’s launch was postponed Wednesday for one day after a fire extinguisher system on the launch pad began leaking.

South Korea has invested more than 500 billion won (400 million dollars) and much national pride in the 140-ton Naro-1.

The liquid-fuelled first stage of the rocket was made in Russia, while the second stage was built domestically, as was the satellite.

South Korea, despite its status as an international economic powerhouse, entered Asia’s space race relatively late.

It has previously sent 10 satellites into space using launch vehicles from other countries.

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

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

In April 2008, Seoul sent its first astronaut into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.