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South Korea Launches Satellite-Carrying Rocket

SEOUL—South Korea successfully launched Wednesday a two-stage rocket carrying a research satellite, a first for a space program long overshadowed by the launches of neighboring North Korea.

The rocket took off at 4 p.m., roaring into a clear sky from a launch pad near the city of Goheung on the country’s south coast. Crowds gathered to watch on rocky hills and small islets near the site, and the launch was broadcast live on national TV networks.

Officials said the satellite had been successfully delivered and is due to begin sending signals to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology early Thursday, so they won’t label the launch a complete success until at least then.

President Lee Myung-bak congratulated the scientists and technicians behind the launch and said, “We made the first step in opening the age of space science.”

Two previous attempts by South Korea to launch rockets into space, in 2009 and 2010, failed because of technical problems.

South Korea developed the 140-ton Naro rocket with assistance from Russia’s space agency, which built the vehicle’s first stage. Following the apparent success on Wednesday, TV broadcasts showed Korean and Russian officials hugging each other in a viewing center near the launch site.

Wednesday’s launch came after two delays in October and November. In the first, a leak was found in a fuel line to the rocket’s first stage. After that was repaired, another attempted launch was scrubbed because of a technical problem detected 17 minutes before liftoff.

With the launch, South Korea became the 11th country to successfully put a satellite into space with a rocket it developed.

The European Space Agency, which has 20 member states, has been routinely launching rockets since 1979. North Korea last month launched a three-stage rocket into space, succeeding on its fifth attempt since the 1990s.

The North Korean rocket was built with parts of its own design and from the former Soviet Union that Pyongyang claimed as its own, South Korean and other experts have said. And the satellite the country claims to have placed into space hasn’t been transmitting, according to amateur observers and space experts in other countries.

Other countries have criticized North Korea’s space program as a cover for the development of long-range missiles.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council extended its sanctions against the North as a penalty for the rocket launch. That has prompted Pyongyang to warn that it will soon test a nuclear explosive, similar to the way it reacted to penalties imposed on it for launch attempts in 2006 and 2009.

North Korea in the past has used South Korea’s space program to argue that sanctions against its own efforts to develop long-range rockets should be ended.

But since Pyongyang’s rocket launch last month, North Korea has been quiet about South Korea’s space efforts.

South Korea first launched a multistage rocket into space in August 2009, but the satellite it was carrying separated a few seconds later than it was supposed to and overshot its orbit.

In June 2010, a second rocket exploded about two minutes after liftoff, before exiting the atmosphere with the satellite.

“All the efforts up to now were not failures, but a process toward success,” Mr. Lee said.

The country’s South Korean space program coordinated through the government’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute, has proceeded at a slow pace similar to the early years of launches by China, Japan, France and the European agency.

Some South Korean politicians and media worried that a third failure would damage the country’s international image and its space-related efforts. Japan and the European Space Agency had four failures over many years before a successful launch.

The U.S. and Soviet Union pioneered space rocketry in the late 1950s with a rapid succession of launches. In 1958 and 1959, the U.S. attempted 19 launches with five successes.

The South Korean agency, known as KARI, has no further rocket launches on its immediate timeline and said it will focus on work with private contractors to develop rocket engines of increasing size and power over the next decade.

Following Wednesday’s launch, the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry issued a statement urging the government to “exert more efforts to develop space industry as a value-added future growth engine.”

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