South Korea test-launched its first domestically produced space rocket today in what officials describe as an important step in the country's pursuit of a satellite launch program.
The three-stage Nuri rocket was delivering a dummy payload – a 1.5-ton block of stainless steel and aluminum – into orbit 600 to 800 kilometers (372 to 497 miles) above Earth.
Live footage showed the 47-meter rocket soaring into the air following takeoff at Naro Space Center, the country’s sole spaceport which is based on a small island off the south coast.
The launch, observed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, was delayed by an hour owing to engineers needing more time to examine the rocket’s valves. There had also been concerns that strong winds and other conditions would be challenging.
Not clear on total success of launch
Officials at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the country’s space agency, said it would take about 30 minutes to determine whether the rocket successfully delivered the payload into orbit.
Nuri's largest first stage, the core booster stage, was expected to land in waters southwest of Japan after separation, its second stage was expected to fall in Pacific waters east of the Philippines, about 2,800 kilometers from the launch site. The smallest third stage carries the payload and is designed to place it into orbit.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the three-stage Nuri rocket succeeded in delivering the payload.
South Korean satellite and space ambitions
After relying on other countries to launch its satellites since the early 1990s, South Korea is now trying to become the 10th nation to send a satellite into space with its own technology.
Officials add this would be crucial for the country’s space ambitions, which include plans for sending more advanced communications satellites and acquiring its own military intelligence satellites. South Korea is also hoping to send a probe to the moon by 2030.
The first built with domestic technology
Nuri is the country’s first space launch vehicle built entirely with domestic technology. The three-stage rocket is powered by five 75-ton class rocket engines placed in its first and second stages. It is planned that Nuri will be tested several more times and another dummy device launch next May, before attempting to launch a real satellite.
Past delays and failures
In previous attempts, South Korea had launched a space vehicle from the Naro spaceport in 2013, a two-stage rocket built mainly with Russian technology. That launch came after years of delays and consecutive failures. Named Naro, the rocket reached the desired altitude during its first test in 2009 but failed to eject a satellite into orbit. It then exploded shortly after takeoff during its second test in 2010.
Tensions with the North
It wasn’t clear how North Korea, which had been accused of using its space launch attempts in past years as a disguise for developing long-range missile technology, would react to today’s launch.
While pushing to expand its nuclear and missile program, the North had shown sensitivity about South Korea’s increasing defense spending and efforts to build more powerful conventionally armed missiles.
However, last month, in a speech to Pyongyang’s parliament, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accused both the U.S. and South Korea of “destroying the stability and balance” in the region with their allied military activities and a U.S.-led “excessive arms buildup” in the South.
While Nuri is powered by liquid propellants that need to be fueled shortly before launch, the South Koreans plan to develop a solid-fuel space launch rocket by 2024, which possibly could be prepared for launch more quickly and would also be more cost effective.