In one shot, South Korea came within reach of low-Earth orbit.
South Korea has successfully launched its first domestically-built space rocket on Thursday, but its dummy satellite did not make it to orbit in a bittersweet surprise result for the country’s first all-domestic test launch, according to an initial report from AP News.
But this still represents a colossal leap forward for the peninsular nation’s space ambitions.
South Korea’s first test launch successfully reached space
South Korea’s first test flight to space saw a three-stage KSLV-II Nuri rocket lift into the stratosphere emblazoned with the country’s national flag from the Naro Space Center at 4:00 AM EDT. The Nuri rocket, which means “world” in Korean, was developed to loft 1.65-ton payloads to orbit 370 to 500 miles (600 to 800 km) above the planet’s surface, and serve as an integral part of South Korea’s wider ambitions to greatly expand its space program. This will include the launch of satellites for navigation, communications, surveillance, and even lunar probes on a long enough timeline. The country’s President Moon Jae-in watched the launch from the nearby space center, and confirmed that the rocket had successfully completed its initial flight sequences, but failed to send the test payload into orbit.
“Unfortunately, we did not fully reach our goal,” said Moon in a speech at the site of the launch, according to a Reuters report. The S. Korean president gave adulation to the workers involved in the launch, and said the project would continue to press further despite the incomplete results of Thursday’s test. “It’s not long before we’ll be able to launch it exactly into the target trajectory,” he said, according to a transcript. “The ‘Korea Space Age’ is approaching.” Officials also said the final stage of the rocket shut down 40 to 50 seconds early, which prevented the payload from achieving sufficient velocity to reach the targeted orbital trajectory. While the cause of this early shutdown is still under investigation, officials think it could have been a premature command from control computers, a lack of pressure inside the fuel tank, or other crucial variables.
There’s still time to ace a test launch
“Today’s launch left some disappointment, but it is significant as it was the first test of the launch vehicle independently developed with our own technology,” said South Korea’s Minister Lim Hye-sook of Science and Technology during a briefing, reported in Reuters. “It’s meaningful to confirm that all major launch steps were carried out and we have secured core technology.” As the briefing came to a close, one of the officials, overwhelmed with emotion, bowed, and said: “Please support us to make the launch successful in May next year.”
This near-miss of a test flight was supervised by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), which moved the 220-ton rocket into its liftoff site on the launch pad on Wednesday, before lifting it into its final position, hoisted to a giant green support structure, all stationed on the launch pad near cliffs that drop sharply into the sea. All three of the rocket’s stages used liquid-fuel boosters manufactured by an affiliate of South Korea’s Hanwha conglomerate. Two pairs of roughly 83-ton boosers were used in the second stage, and a single, 7.7-ton rocket was used in the spacecraft’s final stage. This launch may have not completed every goal of KARI, but the agency aims to execute up to five more test launches before the rocket begins its payload workflow. So there’s still time to ace a launch, the next of which is slated for May 19, 2021.