South Korea suspended its third attempt to send a satellite into orbit by at least three days today, after a helium leak was detected in the rocket just hours before scheduled launch time.
With only a five-day launch window that ends October 30, any further delay could result in a much lengthier postponement, officials at the Naro Space Center told reporters.
After two previous failures in 2009 and 2010, the current launch is considered critical for South Korea’s efforts to join an elite space club that includes Asian powers China, Japan and India.
The 140-tonne Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV-I) had been scheduled to blast off from the Naro site on the south coast on Friday afternoon.
But Deputy Science Minister Cho Yul-Lae said a helium leak in the rocket’s Russian-built first stage would require the carrier to be removed from the launch pad and returned to the assembly facility.
As with the two previous failed attempts, the KSLV-1 has a first stage manufactured by Russia, combined with a solid-fueled second stage built by South Korea.
In 2009 the rocket achieved orbit but faulty release mechanisms on the second stage prevented proper deployment of the satellite.
A second effort in 2010 saw the rocket explode two minutes into its flight, with both Russia and South Korea pointing the finger of blame at each other.
Success this time around will mean a huge boost for South Korea — a late entrant into the high-cost world of space technology and exploration, desperate to get its commercial launch programme up and running.
Seoul’s space ambitions were restricted for many years by its main military ally the United States, which feared that a robust missile or rocket program would accelerate a regional arms race, particularly with North Korea.