From spy satellites to mobile networks, South Korea hopes new rocket will get its space program off the ground



South Korea plans to test its first domestically produced space launcher next week, a major step towards kicking off the country’s space program and achieving ambitious targets in 6G networks, spy satellites and even lunar probes. .

If all goes well, the three-stage NURI rocket, designed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) to eventually orbit 1.5-ton payloads 600 to 800 kilometers above Earth, will carry Thursday a dummy satellite in space.

South Korea’s latest booster, launched in 2013 after several delays and several unsuccessful tests, was developed jointly with Russia.

The new KSLV-II NURI uses only Korean rocket technologies and is the first space launcher built in the country, said Han Sang-yeop, director of KARI’s launch safety and reliability quality assurance division. .

“Having your own launcher gives a country the flexibility of the types of payloads and the launch schedule,” he said in an email.

Military and civilian benefits

It also gives the country more control over “confidential payloads” it might want to send into orbit, Han said.

It will be important to South Korea’s plans to launch surveillance satellites into orbit, in what national security officials have called a constellation of “non-blinking eyes” to keep watch over North Korea.

So far, South Korea has remained almost completely dependent on the United States for satellite intelligence on its northern neighbor.

In 2020, a Falcon 9 rocket from the US firm Space X carried South Korea’s first dedicated military communications satellite into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NURI is also the key to South Korean plans to eventually build a Korean satellite navigation system and 6G communications network.

“The program is designed not only to support government projects, but also business activities,” said Oh Seung-hyub, director of the launcher propulsion system development division, Tuesday.

South Korea is working with the United States on a lunar orbiter and hopes to land a probe on the moon by 2030.

Launch of the trial

Given the issues with previous launches, Han and other planners said they had prepared for the worst.

The launch day can be changed at the last minute if weather or technical problems arise; the craft will carry a self-destruct mechanism to destroy it if it appears that it will not reach orbit; and the media will not be allowed to observe the test directly.

At least four test launches are planned before the rocket is considered reliable enough to carry an actual payload.

According to the pre-launch briefing slides, the rocket’s intended path will take it southeast of its launch site on the south coast of the Korean Peninsula, weaving above the ocean on a path aimed at avoid flying over Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other large land masses.

“This upcoming launch can be remembered as the hope and achievement of the Korean rocket historically, regardless of whether the launch is successful or not,” Han said.

Sensitive technology

Space rockets on the Korean Peninsula have raised many concerns about their potential use for military purposes, leaving South Korea’s efforts to lag behind more successful programs in China and Japan.

“Modern rockets in Korea could not devote much of their capacity to rocket R&D due to long-standing political issues,” Han said.

The United States has viewed North Korea’s own satellite launchers as testing grounds for nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile technology. A North Korean space launch in 2012 contributed to the breakdown of an agreement with the United States.

“North Korea, of course, will not look favorably on South Korea’s rapidly advancing space capabilities, which are much more technologically advanced than those in the North,” Clay said. Moltz, space systems expert at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

South Korea’s push into space comes as it accelerates with its own military ballistic missile systems after agreeing with the United States this year to end all bilateral restrictions on it.

“There is no concern about military applications in the development of the NURI launcher,” said Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University. Unlike liquid-fueled NURI, South Korean military missiles use solid fuel, which is better for weapons, he added.

South Korea is not viewed as a “threat” by either Russia or China, so it seems unlikely to affect their space programs, which are already heavily militarized, Moltz said.

“Many space launch technologies are inherently dual-use,” he said, but noted that he hopes the development of NURI “will not lead to an arms race in space, but rather to a “safer” information race where South Korea has better intelligence to lead out of any future crisis.

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