BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan – Kazakhstan sent its first satellite into space on Sunday in the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic's first step toward fulfilling its ambitions to join the elite club of space-exploring nations.
The KazSat 1 satellite, mounted on a Russian built Proton-K rocket, soared into the pre-dawn skies above the Baikonur cosmodrome in the middle of the harsh Kazakh steppe, watched by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The geostationary satellite is designed to provide TV broadcast and communications for Kazakhstan, part of Russia and three other Central Asian nations — Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
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After the rocket's fiery tail disappeared into the sky, turning pink before dawn, the two leaders left in a car without making comments.
The satellite, built by Russia's Khrunichev design center and reported to be worth $100 million, was initially scheduled for December 2005 but was postponed due to technical problems.
"Everything went according to plan and it gives us hope that the work of the first Kazakh satellite will be successful as well," said Igor Panarin, a Russian space agency spokesman. "It is a victory for both Russia and Kazakhstan."
"It is a great step forward in the development of the domestic space industry and for Kazakhstan, it means it has become a space nation," Panarin said.
Russian news agencies said the satellite reached its geostationary orbit at around 9:30 a.m. (0530 GMT). Neither Russian nor Kazakh space officials could immediately be reached to confirm the orbit.
The Soviet-built Baikonur cosmodrome — the world's largest space center — was the scene of the historic launches of the first satellite to orbit the Earth and pioneer cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Today it's Russia's main launch site for manned space flights.
The Central Asian nation of 15 million had long leased the cosmodrome to Russia, but now Nazarbayev wants his nation to build its own space industry, the government's ambitions fueled by its post-Soviet economic success, pumped up by oil-dollars.
Kazakhstan is planning space exploration missions and has reached an agreement with Russia to be part of all of Russia's projects involving Baikonur, said Serik Turzhanov, who heads the national space agency, Kazkosmos.
Nazarbayev has instructed his government to make development of the space industry a strategic goal and it is drafting a national space program up to 2020. Included are projects to create Kazakhstan's own design bureau that would build small satellites weighing from 175 to 350 pounds.
KazSat-1 is planned to be followed by KazSat 2 and KazSat 3 and several scientific satellites that would be able to predict earthquakes and are equipped with remote sensing devices. The plans also include developing a capacity to provide satellite launch services to other nations, Turzhanov said.
Kazkosmos also intends to built a control center in the capital Astana that would monitor all launches from Baikonur and another center on the basis of the former Soviet Sary Shagan missile test site that would monitor satellites that fly over Kazakh territory.
The Kazakhs are also forming their own squad of cosmonauts, who have been training for a few years at the Russian cosmonaut training center.
Kazakhstan and Russia have agreed to develop jointly a new launch complex for the more environmentally friendly Angara vehicle, an alternative to the Soyuz booster now in use, which uses poisonous fuel.
Separately Sunday, a U.S. telecommunication satellite was launched from a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean.
The Galaxy 16 satellite soared into orbit aboard a Russian-Ukrainian-built Zenit-3SL rocket at around 11:50 a.m. Moscow time (0750 GMT), according to Sea Launch Co., a joint venture that uses a self-propelled platform and an assembly-and-control ship to perform launches.
The satellite, owned by the PanAmSaT telecommunications operator, will provide telecommunication services to users in North America.
The venture is a partnership made up of U.S.-based Boeing Commercial Space Co; Norway's Aker ASA; Russian rocket designer RSC-Energia and SDO Yuzhnoye-PO Yuzhmash of Ukraine.