S. Korean military plans to launch small satellite with solid-fuel rocket by 2025

Posted on : 2022-04-05 17:09 KST Modified on : 2022-04-05 17:23 KST
Military authorities denied speculation that the solid-fuel launch vehicle was being developed with missiles in mind
South Korea’s test-fired a solid-fuel rocket, seen here, over the Yellow Sea on March 30. (provided by the Ministry of National Defense)
South Korea’s test-fired a solid-fuel rocket, seen here, over the Yellow Sea on March 30. (provided by the Ministry of National Defense)

In the wake of South Korea’s recent success with its first-ever test-firing of a solid-fuel space launch vehicle made with domestic technology, military authorities announced plans to launch a small satellite into low Earth orbit within three years.

The authorities stressed that the solid-fuel space launch vehicle has no connections with long-range missile development as some have speculated, explaining that the plan is to use it only for placing very small satellites into low orbit.

Meeting with reporters on Monday, an official from a research institution affiliated with the Ministry of National Defense (MND) said, “We’re anticipating being able to launch [the completed solid-fuel space launch vehicle from the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province, around 2025.”

“The aim is to develop a launch vehicle that can place a satellite weighing around 500 kg at [a low Earth orbit of] 500 km,” the official added.

On March 30, the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) successfully conducted a first launch to test the performance of a solid-fuel space launched vehicle over the Yellow Sea, west of Korea.

Military authorities believe that if South Korea can carry out two to three more successful capability tests of the space vehicle and a launch of a full-fledged rocket, they should be able to place an actual satellite into low orbit.

“We’ve now reached a level of technology where a group of small or very small satellites can perform what used to be done by a medium or large satellite,” the research institution official said.

To date, medium-sized satellites weighing around 500 kg and large satellites weighing around 1 ton have taken photographs of the Earth with usable resolution. Thanks to recent technological developments, even very small satellites weighing less than 100 kg are now capable of doing the same.

Military authorities plan to use solid-fuel rockets — which are more economical than liquid-fuel ones — to put groups of very small reconnaissance satellites into low orbit.

The technology used for a solid-fuel space launch vehicle is similar to that of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The MND’s unscheduled decision to make its first solid-fuel space launch vehicle test public — which came in the wake of North Korea’s recent ICBM test launch — was interpreted by some observers as an attempt to “push back” against the North.

In particular, some speculated that the vehicle was part of a long-range missile development program, prompting military authorities to issue a denial.

“We are not developing [the vehicle] with a missile in mind,” they stressed.

An official at an institution affiliated with the MND said, “In the case of a ballistic missile, the crucial things you need are reentry technology and survivability based on interception system development, whereas the top considerations for a space launch vehicle are economic feasibility and cost.”

“From a technical standpoint, it isn’t appropriate to draw parallels between space launch vehicles and missiles,” they explained — suggesting that the two differ in terms of the very approach behind their design.

Responding to suggestions that the program could give the mistaken impression that the South is following North Korea’s lead in developing missiles under the guise of “space launch vehicles,” an MND official said, “Early on in space launch vehicle development, the state is obliged to play a role due to cost issues and the risk of failure.”

“Once it’s more or less achieved its target and is provided to the private sector where it can be used in a way that suits its purpose, I expect those concerns will go away,” they said.

Remarking on the difference between South and North Korea’s solid-fuel launch vehicle technology capabilities, an official with an MND-affiliated institution said, “When it comes to solid-fuel technology, we’re in the lead.”

When asked about the level of technology in the liquid-fuel engine ICBM recently test-fired by the North, the official explained, “North Korea’s Paektusan engine uses highly toxic and carcinogenic substances such as dinitrogen tetroxide as oxidizers, which have not recently been used for launch vehicle fuel [elsewhere].”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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