SEOUL – South Korea launched its first homemade rocket on Thursday. The mission was only partially successful, but officials called it an important step towards placing domestically produced satellites into orbit to better track the growing threats from North Korea.
Nuri’s three-stage rocket, built by the government’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute with the help of hundreds of local companies, took off from the Naro Space Center in Koheung, on the southwestern tip of South Korea. The rocket carried a 1.5-ton mock payload to test its ability to launch an artificial satellite into an orbit 373 to 497 miles above Earth.
Just over an hour after takeoff, President Moon Jae-in said the launch “did not fully achieve its goal,” but showed “excellent results on the first try.” He said Nuri sent his payload into space 434 miles above Earth, but the mission was “unfinished.” Mr. Moon did not provide further details, but experts said the dummy satellite probably did not operate at the altitude or speed planned by its engineers.
“We were just one step away from our goal,” Mr. Moon said during a press conference, urging engineers to make the next launch, scheduled for May, “a complete success.”
Thursday’s launch was broadcast live on all major TV channels and online streaming platforms such as YouTube. Mr. Moon’s government has announced the launch as a giant step forward in South Korea’s quest to become the new leader in space technology.
South Korea had a long-standing ambition to join an elite club of nations building rockets capable of launching communications, surveillance and other satellites into orbit. After numerous delays and malfunctions, the South Korean Naro rocket managed to put a satellite into orbit for research and development purposes in 2013. But unlike Nuri, the missile launched on Thursday using domestic technology, Naro was built jointly with Russia.
South Korea spent nearly $ 1.7 billion building the 200-ton Nuri launch vehicle, also known as the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-II. Several more test runs of the Nuri system were planned, including one scheduled for May.
Thanks to Nuri, South Korea hoped to gain a foothold in space technology, the newest high-tech market in which the country decided to become a player. The majority of rocket launches around the world have been carried out by the United States, Russia, France, China, Japan and India.
South Korea plans to send a lunar orbiter next fall aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk. Mr Moon said his country expects to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon using South Korean rockets by 2030.
South Korea says it hopes to build next-generation satellite navigation and communications networks with its own missile capabilities. It also wants to take a portion of the global satellite launch market, which is becoming more and more crowded as large industrialized countries struggle to create their own domestic programs.
The Nuri launch also reflected South Korea’s desire to be less dependent on US forces to monitor North Korea, and its goal of regaining operational control over its 550,000-strong military during the war. Under a bilateral agreement with Washington, South Korean troops will come under the command of an American general in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea does not have its own military spy satellites, instead relying on United States satellites to monitor the North. Placing one’s own “eyes and ears” in space has become more relevant as North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have expanded over the years and after President Donald J. Trump threatened to withdraw US troops from South Korea.
Last July, South Korea launched its first military communications satellite powered by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket into orbit.
North Korea, which has its own rocket program, has criticized the South’s space program for its potential military applications. Space rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles use similar technologies. North Korea launched satellite spacecraft before successfully testing three ICBMs in 2017. The UN Security Council has banned North Korea from launching space rockets, which were used as tests for the country’s long-range ballistic missile program.
South Korea’s space ambitions have been constrained for years by agreements with the United States. US officials feared that a robust South Korean missile program would lead the country to develop missiles, accelerating a regional arms race. But last year, Washington and Seoul agreed to lift some of the restrictions that allowed South Korea to build solid-fuel rockets for space launch vehicles.
Solid fuel rockets are more cost effective than liquid fuel rockets such as Nuri. They are also ideal for long-range ballistic missiles as they are easier to transport and prepare for launch. North Korea accused the South of hypocrisy for expanding its own weapons, while criticizing the North.