Rocket Booster Returns to Flight in Satellite Launch
A Eurockot Launch Services Rockot booster launched the South Korean satellite KOMPSAT-2 into orbit on July 28, 2006.
Credit: ELS.

A modified Russian military missile now sold commercially for space launches successfully completed the orbital delivery of a South Korean observation satellite today. The rocket was bouncing back from a bitter failure last year that left the booster grounded for almost 10 months.

Blastoff from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome's complex 133 was at 3:05 a.m. EDT (0705 GMT), and the Rockot launch vehicle arrived in its targeted orbit less than an hour later. Officials confirmed the 1,764-pound KOMPSAT 2 payload separated from the rocket's Breeze-KM third stage, and the launch was declared a success.

The Rockot's two lower stages are from the SS-19 ballistic missile, while the Breeze upper stage is designed to complete the task of placing satellites into orbit. Eurockot - a firm jointly owned by German and Russian companies - markets the Rockot vehicle to satellite operators.

The launch marked the return to flight for the Rockot, whose second stage engine failed five minutes after liftoff during a flight last October. In that mission, a $170 million satellite to study Earth's polar ice caps was lost.

An investigation found the second stage engine did not cut off at the appropriate time, but instead burned until it depleted its fuel tanks. This unstable shut down caused the rocket to veer out of control.

Further analysis showed the command to turn off the second stage engine was sent by an on-board computer, but a pressurization sequence on the Breeze third stage was not completed in time. Engineers believe the pressurization time was not loaded into the computer correctly, so the official cause of the accident was labeled as human error.

Strict constraints have since been added to the pressurization timeline to ensure a similar event does not occur again.

"There are software changes to the flight program, which will now be more rigid," said Peter Freeborn, Eurockot's sales director. "Verification (of) hardware and software was improved, as were the direct communication links to the Russian authorities so that we will have greater transparency."

"We hope to strengthen our lead in the Asian market with this launch," Freeborn said. "We would particularly like to position ourselves for future satellites programs the Republic of Korea is currently planning."

KOMPSAT 2 is setting off on a three-year mission to provide a wide variety of international customers with a new source of high resolution imagery of locations worldwide. In South Korea, the satellite is commonly called Arirang 2.

It is the second member of South Korea's multipurpose satellite fleet operated by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute based about 90 miles south of the capital city of Seoul.

The KOMPSAT series debuted with the launch of the first satellite in 1999, and similar craft are in the works for the future. A third satellite could be placed in orbit in 2009, and more are expected to follow in the next decade.

Both satellites currently in space circle Earth in a 98-degree inclination Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of around 425 miles.

"This is our second mission within the KOMPSAT series, and we are very happy to have achieved the launch success for KOMPSAT 2 with Eurockot," said Dr. Hong-Yul Paik, president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute in charge of the satellite. "I want to extend our thanks to everyone involved in achieving this outstanding launch."

KOMPSAT 2 carries a high resolution camera jointly developed by Israel's Electro-Optics Industries and Korean engineers. The imager can resolve objects as small as one meter in black-and-white, while color pictures taken by the camera will have a resolution of four meters.

The detailed images will be used by South Korea in applications such as land management, crop and vegetation monitoring, ocean observations, and other environmental studies. Urban areas, disaster zones, and many other regions worldwide may also be a prime focus of the mission.

The new satellite will also offer South Korea free and immediate access to imagery on par with current commercial remote sensing capabilities. The QuickBird satellite fielded by DigitalGlobe offers customers a black-and-white resolution of about 60 centimeters, and the company's two planned WorldView satellites will produce pictures with half-meter resolution. Spacecraft operated by GeoEye - formed by ORBIMAGE's acquisition of Space Imaging - are able to gather imagery with one-meter resolution.

KOMPSAT 2's camera provides 45 times better resolution than earlier South Korean craft. With this increased resolution, pictures from the camera could be sharp enough to spy on strategic sites such as missile bases and nuclear plants inside North Korea, a senior director in charge of the mission told The Korea Times newspaper.

Spot Image of France has acquired the rights to sell commercial imagery from KOMPSAT 2. The image distributor says KOMPSAT 2 products are ideal for intelligence gathering and identifying sensitive areas such as airfields, missile sites, communication centers, ports, and railroad depots, among others.

Korean officials brokered a deal worth $35 million with the European satellite-builder EADS Astrium to support the design and construction of KOMPSAT 2, according to a company fact sheet. A much more inclusive contract was signed in 1995 between Korean satellite developers and U.S.-based TRW to cover the first KOMPSAT craft.

A South Korean telecommunications satellite is scheduled for launch in August aboard a Zenit rocket from a floating platform in the central Pacific Ocean.

Russia is also planning to allow a South Korean astronaut to fly to the international space station inside a Soyuz capsule by 2008.

A separate agreement calls for extensive Russian involvement in South Korean efforts to begin developing a new rocket to launch small satellites from its home territory in the next few years.

The next flight for the Rockot is planned for next year when it will launch the European Space Agency's GOCE mission to measure Earth's gravity field.

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