South Korea's new space program reaches for the sky
Seoul, Jun 30: The recent launch of South Korea's first domestically developed rocket has given new impetus to the nation's ambitions to develop new technologies to explore and exploit outer space.
This week, the government announced that it intends to invest 800 billion won (€587 million) to develop Goheung, an island in the country's south that serves as the headquarters of the Naro Space Center.
The 200-ton Nuri rocket was launched from the center on June 21.
The Ministry of Science and Information and Communication Technology confirmed that the first and second-stage rockets both separated on schedule and that a number of satellites were deployed at the target altitude of 700 kilometers (430 miles).
President Yoon Suk-yeol watched the launch and applauded the effort that had gone into South Korea's first successful launch of a domestically built rocket, making the nation the seventh country in the world to put a satellite into geosynchronous orbit with its own launch vehicle.
'A path to space'
"Now, a path to space has been opened from the Republic of Korea," Yoon told the scientists who had masterminded the launch, adding that the government will establish a domestic space agency and provide support for further development.
The government plans to turn Goheung island into a Korean version of Merritt Island in the US, which is home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Facilities will be developed for research centers, testing venues and companies providing components for rockets. Three new launch pads are also to be developed to complement the existing two sites.
The successful launch was particularly welcome given the failure of a previous mission.
A Nuri rocket sent aloft in October last year reached its target altitude but failed to deploy a dummy satellite into orbit after the third-stage engine burned out prematurely.
"South Korea has big ambitions to have its own independent space program and be a player in the global space industry," said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based fellow for the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, DC.
"Seoul also wants to build a satellite-based navigation system and a 6G communications network, as well as launch a lunar orbiter and land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon," she told DW.
Despite official denials that the program will have military applications, South Korea's military does hope to be able to use the technology to keep a closer eye on its belligerent northern neighbor, she added.
"The launch is significant because South Korea does not have its own military spy satellites to monitor North Korean threats and needs to depend on US reconnaissance satellites," she said.
"So space, science and technology, economic opportunities, global status, national pride and defense objectives all converge in this Nuri test," she added.
Competing with regional rivals
South Korea also hopes the successful launch will help it compete with existing space powers in the region, notably China and Japan, which have both been putting vehicles into orbit for some years.
The immediate target for the program is a further four launches to deploy payloads into orbit, followed by the placing of a landing module on the moon by 2031.
To date, only the US, Soviet Union and China have managed a successful lunar landing.
Yet South Korea's ambitions in outer space face a number of hurdles, not least a geographical position that makes launches "challenging," said Lance Gatling, an aerospace and security analyst and founder of Tokyo-based Gatling Associates.
"The biggest issue facing Seoul is its location, which severely limits the direction in which it can carry out launches," he told DW.
South Korea is hemmed in by Russia, North Korea, China and Japan, none of which could be expected to grant permission for the over-flight of a rocket out of concern that an accident could lead to the vehicle falling onto their territory.
Gatling said South Korea's only choice is a launch almost due south in order to achieve a southern polar orbit of the planet.
"It would be a huge political issue if any part of one of these vehicles came down on another country, with potentially several tons of metal and highly toxic fuel," he added.
High price of development
Another clear challenge is the sheer cost required to develop the present facilities on Goheung island, which will have to include significant investment in infrastructure in order to attract private sector companies to the new space port.
Seoul, nevertheless, is pushing ahead with "clear plans for the sector," Gatling said.
"I would think that the lunar rover project that they are discussing would be a reasonable early goal and that would lead to further national pride in their achievements, which would fuel more plans," he said.
"But while they are talking about commercial applications and putting other nations' satellites into orbit, there will also certainly be national security aspects that they are unlikely to fully reveal. This is a good opportunity to deploy constellations of remote sensing and spy satellites to monitor the North," he added.