South Korea test-launched its first domestically produced space rocket on Thursday in what officials describe as an important step in the country’s pursuit of a satellite launch program. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the three-stage Nuri rocket succeeded in delivering a dummy payload – a 1.5-ton block of stainless steel and aluminium – into orbit 600 to 800 kilometres (372 to 497 miles) above Earth.
Live footage showed the 47-meter (154 foot) rocket soaring into the air with bright yellow flames shooting out of its engines the following blastoff at Naro Space Center, the country’s lone spaceport, on a small island off its southern coast.
The launch, which was observed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, was delayed by an hour because engineers needed more time to examine the rocket’s valves. There had also been concerns that strong winds and other conditions would pose challenges for a successful 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, and its second stage was expected to fall in remote Pacific waters east of the Philippines, about 2,800 kilometres (1,740 miles) away from the launch site. The smallest third stage carries the payload and is designed to place it into orbit.
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 say such an ability 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. The country is also hoping to send a probe to the moon by 2030.
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.
Scientists and engineers at KARI plan to test Nuri several more times, including conducting another launch with a dummy device in May 2022, before trying with a real satellite.
South Korea had previously launched a space launch vehicle from the Naro spaceport in 2013, which was a two-stage rocket built mainly with Russian technology. That launch came after years of delays and consecutive failures. The rocket, named Naro, reached the desired altitude during its first test in 2009 but failed to eject a satellite into orbit, and then exploded shortly after takeoff during its second test in 2010.
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 Thursday’s launch.
While pushing to expand its nuclear and missile program, the North had shown sensitivity about South Korea’s increasing defence spending and efforts to build more powerful conventionally armed missiles.
In a speech to Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp parliament last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accused 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 also be more cost-effective.