With the successful launch of the Naro rocket on Wednesday, Korea made a major stride in its decade-old bid to gain entry into the elite club of players in space technology and the lucrative space services market.
The 33.5-meter, 140-ton Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 blasted off from the Naro Space Center on the south coast, putting the nation’s 15th satellite into orbit.
Korea became the 11th nation to have successfully sent a domestic satellite from its own soil.
The achievement marks a momentous boost for Korea’s space ambitions and national pride, which were dampened by two previous failures, in 2009 and 2010, as well as North Korea’s launch of a sattelite on Dec. 12.
Experts, however, say there is a still long way to go before catching up with the global leaders in the field including Asian rivals China, India and Japan.
“Korea bought the first stage of Naro from Russia, which means we still lack the technology to build a liquid fuel engine,” Cho Jin-soo, professor of the department of engineering at Hanyang University.
Korea aims to develop an indigenous 10-ton thrust liquid-fueled rocket engine by 2016, a 75-ton thrust engine by 2018, and a 300-ton thrust engine that can carry a 1.5-ton satellite into outer space by 2020.
But Cho, who also heads the Korean Society for Aeronautical and Space Sciences, noted it may take longer than expected.
“I believe we should now focus on developing (our) own technologies, own engine, rather than depending on other advanced countries,” he added.
Korea’s ambitious space program has already been hampered by the continuous delay of Naro’s launch.
The Naro space program began in 2002 in the face of a growing need to send satellites and tap into the huge space market. This prompted the country to seek its own means to deliver satellites. Korea sent all of its previous 14 satellites from foreign soil, using foreign space vehicles.
The Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the state-run space program developer, built the two-stage Naro rocket in cooperation with Russia.
Russia’s Khrunichev Space Research Center designed and manufactured the lower part that uses kerosene as its fuel and liquefied oxygen as its oxidizer while KARI developed the upper part that uses a solid fuel system with a 7-ton thrust engine.
Korea failed in its previous two attempts in 2009 and 2010. The first launch attempt on Aug. 25, 2009, ended in what the KARI called a “half-success” as the rocket reached its target altitude but was unable to deploy the satellite it carried due to a problem with the fairings that protect the payload.
During its second attempt, the rocket exploded 137 seconds after liftoff. What caused the explosion has still not been clearly identified, but one possibility is a malfunction of the flight termination system in the upper-stage rocket.
Some critics insist Korea wasted money on the Naro project without gaining core rocket technologies from Russia, citing that the Russian partners signed an agreement not to disclose confidential information on rocket engines.
But Kim Seung-jo, president of KARI, said earlier that he believes the Naro launches, including two previous failures, were a crucial lesson for the development of the Korean space program.
“We learned a lot through the investigation with Russia. We now know what systems we need to look at and what kinds of sensors are necessary to detect when the rocket fails,” he told The Korea Herald during an interview.
“This is important in running a space program,” he added.
Kim also noted that Korea learned know-how in launch pad design and operations, as well as some key technologies needed to develop a liquid-fueled rocket engine from the Russian experts.
With the success of the Naro launch, KARI will now focus on developing a 75-ton thrust engine. But it is a still long way off, experts say.
The country first needs to upgrade its current space vehicle test center, but in order to that KARI will have to secure a budget of more than 300 billion won ($264 million).
“We still don’t have the facilities to test a large-scale rocket engine and test-fly it. We need to upgrade the Naro Space Center,” Kim said Wednesday.
Experts reiterate state-backing is crucial to developing rocket technology as it requires a wide range of expertise from physics and chemistry to engineering and information and technology.
“It’s crucial to secure not only more funds, but also more highly skilled personnel in order to develop the domestic rocket,” Cho added.Chronology
● August 2002 ― Korea and Russia confirm plans to develop the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1.
● Oct. 26, 2004 ― The Korea Aerospace Research Institute signs a cooperative pact with Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center.
● 2005 ― Korea and Russia complete work on critical designs for the KSLV-1.
● July 2007 ― The critical design for land-based launch support facilities is acquired.
● September 2007 ― The qualification model of the upper part of the rocket is completed.
● August 2008 ― Russia builds a ground test vehicle for the main booster of the KSLV-1.
● June 2009 ― Korea opens the Naro Space Center. A complete first-stage rocket arrives from Russia by plane.
● Aug. 19, 2009 ― Korea halts the countdown of the KSLV-1 with less than eight minutes remaining after the automatic launch sequence system detects a problem in a high-pressure tank.
● Aug. 25, 2009 ― Korea fails to send a satellite into orbit.
● June 9, 2010 ― The launch of KSLV-1 is aborted with three hours left on the clock after emergency fire extinguishers activate.
● June 10, 2010 ― The KSLV-1 explodes 137.19 seconds after liftoff.
● Oct. 26, 2012 ― The scheduled launch of the KSLV-1 is delayed indefinitely due to a damaged rubber seal in the connector between the rocket and its launch pad.
● Nov. 29, 2012 ― The scheduled launch is postponed again due to a technical glitch in the upper part of the rocket.
● Jan. 30, 2013 ― The KSLV-1 successfully puts a satellite in orbit.
By Oh Kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org)