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19.01.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Korea’s New Year lunar orbit and other recent achievements in its rocket program

For both North and South Korea the New Year’s Eve was a time to boast of noteworthy achievements.

On December 21 Korean prime Minister Han Duck-soo presided over the 22nd Session of the National Space Committee, during which it adopted its fourth framework plan for space exploration. The plan sets out three main goals: to carry out landings on the Moon and Mars in 2032 and 2045 respectively, to allocate 1.5 trillion won of state funds to the space program for the period up to 2027, and to increase the global market share of South Korea’s private space construction sector to 10% by 2045 (from 1% in 2020).

The Ministry of Sciences, Information and Communications Technologies has chosen three regions of the country – South Jeolla Province, South Gyeongsang Province and Daejeon city – which will host specialized clusters dedicated to the development of the space industries.

The South Jeolla Province, home to the Naro space center, has being proposed as the main location for purchases, and a number of launch sites and a center for the commercialization of rocket technology will be constructed in this province. South Gyeongsang will specialize in the development and creation of satellites – and already has sufficient production capacity to achieve this goal. The planned construction of a space innovations center in the region will help to extend its capacities in this area. Daejeon will develop as a scientific research and education cluster. The city is already home to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST), the country’s leading technical higher education institution.

If the construction of the necessary infrastructure is approved then Korea will invest some 800 billion won ($620 million) in the three clusters between 2024 and 2031. In the period up to 2030 Seoul plans to invest 1.4 trillion won in the development and creation of a network of observation satellites to monitor the territory of the Korean peninsula, along with a ground-based satellite control system.

On December 22 South Korea published a photograph of Pyongyang taken by one of its own satellites. North Korea had previously published a photograph of Seoul, which, it claims, was taken by a military spy satellite. The color photograph clearly shows Kim Il-sung Square and the buildings surrounding it. And since the North Korean photograph, which was published earlier, was in black and white and in lower resolution, a number of experts have joked that North Korea’s most recent drone attacks were carried out as a response to South Korea’s publication of its photograph of Pyongyang.

On December 30 South Korea successfully tested a solid fuel space launch vehicle. According to a statement by South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development the test was part of a drive to strengthen the country’s space surveillance capabilities. The statement did not specify where the test took place, and it was conducted without any prior announcements, but the rocket trail was clearly visible in the night sky and was the subject of a great deal of comment. A number of people even jumped to the conclusion that North Korea was responsible for the launch, and the emergency services received more than a thousand calls.

According to a statement by South Korea’s military, this was the second stage of testing, following an initial test on March 30, 2022, when the rocket decoupling system was tested and the upper stage rocket control system was fine-tuned. But while the initial test involved only two rocket stages, the most recent test was conducted with rockets on the second, third and fourth stages of a four-stage vehicle.

Experts believe that the rocket is designed to launch a small surveillance satellite into low-earth orbit. Its development became possible after the US lifted its 800 km limit on the range of Korean rockets in May 2021.

The solid fuel rocket represents a technical advance in Seoul’s technical capabilities, as solid fuel rockets tend to be easier and cheaper to launch than liquid fuel rockets.  On January 2 South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced that the testing of the solid-fuel space launch vehicle (note the absence of the word “rocket”) is a step forwards in the country’s drive to protect its space security without being dependent on other countries.

It is now clear that the rocket uses solid fuel for the first three stages, while liquid fuel is used for the fourth stage – experts consider that the use of liquid fuel makes it easier to control the fuel injection and thus place the payload in precisely the required orbit

In or around 2025 the Ministry now plans to launch a 500-kilogram synthetic aperture radar (SAR) radiolocation satellite into low earth orbit in order to carry out space intelligence and surveillance functions. But first a number of other flight tests and other trials will need to be performed.

Moreover, the technical innovations developed during the project to create the launch vehicle will be shared with the civil sector, thus helping to kick-start Korea’s space industry.

Seoul can also congratulate itself on another achievement – its unmanned spacecraft Danuri has completed an orbit around the moon. It is no secret that all projects of this kind can be used for both military and civilian purposes.

In the past the author has reported on South Korea’s Nuri (KSLV-II) rocket, which made its first proper flight on June 21, 2022.   Shortly afterwards, on August 4, 2022 the Falcon 9 rocket operated by the private aerospace company Space Exploration Technologies, took off from Cape Canaveral, in Florida and launched South Korea’s Danuri (Pathfinder) orbiter into space.

Back in December 2016 the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and NASA signed an agreement under which they would work together to develop a lunar orbiter.  In 2020 the orbiter was assembled and it was tested in September last year. 40 South Korean companies and 13 universities contributed to the project, together forming almost the entirety of the country’s space research capabilities, participated in the project.

Once it had reached the height of 1,656 kilometers the Danuri orbiter separated from the rocket and entered a low-energy ballistic lunar trajectory (BLT), first traveling towards the Sun, and then turning towards the Moon. In four and a half months it traveled 1.56 million kilometers.  On two occasions in November 2022  Danuri sent texts and images back to the Earth, thus demonstrating its ability to send data over large distances.   On December 27 it successfully entered lunar orbit at about 100 kilometers above the surface of the moon. South Korean scientists will monitor Danuri’s activities for another month and then in February 2023 it will begin the main part of its mission. Using six on-board sensors (including DTN – a form of “space Internet”, long-range space telecommunications links etc.) it will take measurements of landscape features, the strength of the magnetic field and other aspects of the moon’s surface.

Another task for Tanuri is to search for a suitable site on the Moon’s surface where Korea’s lunar module (to be launched in 2032) will be able to land. Danuri will also help the NASA to implement its Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2024. The South Korean spaceship will help NASA to identify a landing site for the US astronauts.

Danuri will then try to create the world’s first map of the Moon’s x-ray polarization and then set up a space Internet link. Currently Danuri has 30% of its fuel reserves remaining, and this will be enough for it to carry out its mission over the next year

As for Nuri, the third launch of this rocket will take place in the first half of 2023. The Korean government plans to conduct four more launches of the booster rocket so that it can upgrade its technological capabilities and in the future use it to launch a domestically made satellite and landing module without assistance from other countries.

Finally, on January 5 the third prototype of the Korean KF-21 Boramae fighter jet made a successful flight.   In the first half of this year three more prototypes are to be tested and the jet will carry out some 2,000 test flights before it enters into service in February 2026.

The KF-21 project, which was launched in 2015 at a cost of 8.8 trillion won ($6.9 billion), was designed to develop a 4.5 generation fighter jet to replace the obsolete F-4 and F-5 jets which are to be withdrawn after dozens of years in operation.

In conclusion, two points should be noted. Firstly, the recent launch of the solid fuel rocket, and, before it, the launch of the Danuri orbiter, both took place under the current President Yoon Suk Yeol, but all the preparations were carried out before he came to power, and they should be seen as evidence of the militarization policy of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in – a policy this author has looked at more than once in his articles.

Secondly, just like North Korea’s space rockets, they fall within the category of dual use technology, and so are contributing to the escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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