South Korea plans to test its first domestically produced space launch vehicle on Thursday next week, a major step toward jumpstarting the country’s space program and achieving goals 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), is to carry a dummy satellite into space.
It is to eventually put payloads into orbit 600km to 800km above the Earth.
South Korea’s last such booster, launched in 2013 after multiple delays and failed tests, was jointly developed with Russia.
The new KSLV-II NURI has solely South Korean rocket technologies and is the country’s first domestically built space launch vehicle, said Han Sang-yeop, director of KARI’s Launcher Reliability Safety Quality Assurance Division. “Having its own launch vehicle gives a country the flexibility of payload types and launch schedule.”
It also gives the country more control over “confidential payloads” it might want to send into orbit, Han said.
That will be important for South Korea’s plans to launch surveillance satellites into orbit, in what national security officials have called a constellation of “unblinking eyes” to monitor North Korea.
So far, South Korea has remained almost totally reliant on the US for satellite intelligence on its northern neighbor.
Last year, a Falcon 9 rocket from US firm SpaceX carried South Korea’s first dedicated military communications satellite into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NURI is also key to South Korean plans to eventually build a satellite-based navigation system and a 6G communications network.
“The program is designed not only to support government projects, but also commercial activity,” Oh Seung-hyub, director of the Launcher Propulsion System Development Division, told a briefing on Tuesday.
South Korea is working with the US on a lunar orbiter and hopes to land a probe on the moon by 2030.
Given problems with previous launches, Han and other planners said they have prepared for the worst.
The launch day may 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 it will not reach orbit; and media are not allowed to observe the test directly.
At least four test launches are planned before the rocket will be considered reliable enough to carry a real payload.
“This upcoming launch may be remembered as the hope and achievement of [South] Korean rocketry historically no matter the launch is successful or not,” Han told reporters.
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