South Korea’s giant leap into space started with a small step on the internet.
With treaties banning certain tech transfers, South Korea’s rocket scientists turned to a search service to find an engine they could mimic as the country embarked on an ambitious plan to build an indigenous space program. The nation launched its first home-grown rocket called Nuri in October 2021.
“What caught our eye was the Falcon’s Merlin engine. We developed Nuri looking at the pictures and using it as a point of reference for design,” said Yoo Jae-Suk, a director at Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), referring to the SpaceX engine.
Starting with a small staff and limited ambitions, the program first turned out a 6-meter-long rocket in 1993. It now has about 1,000 personnel, among them 250 researchers, at its Naro Space Center base. The gleaming facilities are situated in the south of the country where the ocean meets rugged mountains.
Yoo, who just assumed a new role as KARI’s launch vehicle tech research director, had a smile on his face as he went through a frigid white warehouse that contains a copy of the Nuri rocket that towered above people walking by.
There’s a business goal as well, with the government looking to increase South Korea’s share of the global space economy to 10% by 2045 from the current estimated 1%.
The competition for South Korea looks set to intensify with India, the UK, Australia and other nations also looking to expand their space programs.
The UK has seven spaceports in the works, with multiple launch startups looking to differentiate themselves from the competition. In November, the UK issued its first spaceport license to a launch hub in southwest England, paving the way for a ground-breaking mission by billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc.
With a treaty among established space powers including the US, Russia, and France excluding technology transfers of crucial elements for aspiring nations, South Korea had to build its 200-ton, three-stage liquid-fueled rocket from the ground up.
The 2021 Nuri launch was bittersweet, with the rocket making it to space but failing to successfully deploy a test satellite at an altitude of about 700 kilometers (435 miles).
In June, 2022, South Korea launched Nuri again and deployed the test satellite, becoming the seventh country to launch a homegrown rocket and a satellite of more than 1 ton. The next big milestone comes as early as May, when Nuri is set to deploy eight working satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit.
A commercial deployment would be a natural next step for South Korea’s high-tech economy. But the mission also highlights how far it needs to go to take on established space powers and even its neighbor North Korea, which on Feb. 18 sent one of its missiles 5,700 kilometers into space.
Many South Korean firms as well as the government have relied on overseas commercial satellite firms to put their payloads into space.
Nuri is launched at the Naro Space Center in the southern coastal city of Goheung — a South Korean version of Merritt Island in the US that is home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The rocket is waiting in pieces for the two-months-long assembly process — led by aerospace firms including Hanwha Aerospace and Korea Aerospace Industries — in a warehouse that can easily fit a 747 jumbo jet.
The flagship Nuri rocket stands at a height of 47-meters (154 feet), slightly smaller than Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket, which has a payload capacity more than six times greater.
It costs about $80 million a launch for Nuri. That’s higher than the $67 million for the more powerful Falcon 9 booster from SpaceX, and $50 million for Japan’s H3 rocket, which failed at a second attempted launch on Tuesday.
It cost South Korea $1.6 billion to develop Nuri over the past decade, but that was just a steppingstone. The priorities now are bringing down costs, boosting efficiency and transferring more operations to the private sector, Yoo said. Hanwha was selected by the government as a key contractor last year.
The global pace of launches hit a new high in 2021 and looked to end 2022 at a similar volume, according to data from Quilty.
Global sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine a year ago have narrowed that nation’s space business to a trickle. But analysts said Russia was a declining power in the commercial space business before the war and players such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, which is a venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., are ready to pick up the slack.
“We are trying to build a SpaceX-like company in Korea,” said Park Chang-Su, who spearheads KARI’s launch vehicle systems research, expressing hopes that Hanwha could make the business profitable. “Elon Musk has made it a very tight market for other companies.”
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