South Korea to Boost Military and Civil Space Spending, Transfer Satellite and Launch Vehicle Technology to Private Sector

Test model of the Nuri (KSLV-II) booster. (Credit: Ministry of Science and ICT)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

South Korea plans to invest more than $14.25 billion over the next decade to improve its military and civil space capabilities. The Republic of Korea will transfer satellite and launch vehicle technology to the private sector to boost the nation’s domestic capabilities and improve its international competitiveness. The nation is also deepening defense and civil space cooperation with the United States.

The moves come as South Korea prepares for the Oct. 21 maiden flight of its first domestically produced satellite launch vehicle, Nuri. The nation is also building its first lunar orbiter, which is scheduled for launch aboard an American rocket in October 2022.

Military Space Spending Increased

The boost in military space spending follows an agreement with the United States earlier this year to lift 42-year-old restrictions on South Korea that limited missiles to a range of 180 km (112 miles) and a maximum payload of 500 kg (1,102 lb).

“After the end of the missile guidelines in May, conditions for accelerating space development in the defense sector have been created, and a total of 16 trillion won [US $13.67 billion] in space development is expected to be invested in the defense sector alone over the next 10 years,” the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said in a press release.

DAPA said 1.6 trillion won (US $1.37 billion) of that amount would be spent “in the development of core technologies in the defense satellite sector in order to secure the technological capability for Korea to develop its own satellites.”

DAPA noted that the end of restrictions on missile development will allow South Korea to develop solid-fuel boosters for use in launching satellites.

“In order to expand the role of domestic industries and strengthen competitiveness, the technology possessed by the Defense Science Research Institute will be transferred to companies, and the satellite mass production business that requires mass production of satellites will diversify participating companies,” the release added.

“In addition, in order to lay the groundwork for space development and establish an ecosystem for the satellite industry, we plan to establish defense space assembly and test facilities, establish efficient defense satellite business promotion procedures, and periodically hold defense space policy forums and space company meetings,” DAPA said.

DAPA plans to create a Space Defense Project Master Plan to cover space systems, technologies, industries, facilities and infrastructure.

Gen. John Raymond

The actions come as the Republic of Korea deepens its military space cooperation with the United States. On Aug. 27, South Korean Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Park In-ho, met with U.S. Space Force Gen. John W. Raymond, chief of space operations, and Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the U.S. Space Command, at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado.

The two nations signed a revised agreement to deepen cooperation on space surveillance, space domain awareness, space technology, and missile defense. The pact also allows the South Korean Air Force to participate in joint space-related military exercises.

Launch Vehicle Technology Transfer Planned

On Sept. 7, the Ministry of Science and ICT held an online video conference with South Korean aerospace companies to discuss a five-year plan set to begin 2022 that is aimed at improving the nation’s launch vehicle technology. The government plans to spend 687.38 billion won ($587.31 million) on the program.

“The Ministry of Science and ICT can improve the reliability of Korean launch vehicle through the Korean launch vehicle upgrade project (new in 2022, hereinafter referred to as the ‘Advanced Project’), while transferring the Korean launch vehicle development technology to the private sector to raise the industrial launch vehicle development capability,” the ministry said in a press release.

“For the upgrade project, the host company will systematically transfer projectile development technology and know-how from the Korea Aerospace Research Institute [KARI] while jointly carrying out the production and repeated launches of the launch vehicle,” the press release added. (KARI is South Korea’s space agency.)

Test Launch Vehicle lifts off from Naro Space Center on Nov. 28, 2018. (Credit: KARI)

The conference came as South Korea prepares for the maiden flight of its first domestically produced launch vehicle. The liquid-fuel Nuri booster, also known as KSLV-II, will launch a dummy satellite from the Naro Space Center on Oct. 21.

Nuri is a three-stage, 47.2 meter (155 foot) tall booster capable of placing 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) into a 600-800 km (373-497 mile) high low Earth orbit (LEO) and 2,600 kg (5,732 lb) into a 300 km (186 mile) high orbit. Nuri has a gross weight of 200,000 kg (440,925 lb) and a diameter of 3.5 meters (11.5 feet).

Nuri’s first stage is powered by four KRE-075 engines with a specific impulse of 289.1 seconds. A single KRE-075 vacuum engine powers the second stage, with one KRE-007 engine on the third stage. All six engines were developed by South Korean engineers and use Jet A-1 fuel and liquid oxygen.

KARI designed the rocket while Hanwha Aerospace manufactures the engines. Korea Aerospace Industries oversees final assembly of the booster. Hyundai Heavy Industries built the launch pad. Development costs are estimated at 1.96 trillion won (US $1.7 billion), which includes the building of the spaceport.

Engineers are working to developed a lighter and more powerful version of the KRE-075 engine that would increase Nuri’s payload from 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) to 2,800 kg (6,173 lb).

Engineers also have plans to develop a Nuri variant capable of launching satellites into geosynchronous orbit. The first stage will be powered by four KRE-090 engines with four side boosters each equipped with a single KRE-90 engine. The second stage will be powered by a KRE-090 engine, and the third stage by a KRE-010 engine.

A Mission to the Moon

South Korea has been increasing its space exploration efforts. KARI is building the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), a small orbiter that will study the moon from an altitude of 100 km (62.1 miles). KPLO is scheduled for launch in August 2022 as a secondary payload aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The project began in 2014 with an agreement between KARI and NASA to conduct a lunar orbiter feasibility study. The two space agencies agreed to collaborate on developing KPLO in December 2016.

The orbiter will include five South Korean scientific instruments and one from NASA:

  • Lunar Terrain Imager to photography the surface high spatial resolution of less than 5 meters;
  • Wide-Angle Polarimetric Camera to provide images with medium spatial resolution;
  • NASA’s ShadowCam to search for water-ice deposits in permanently shadowed regions;
  • KPLO Magnetometer to measure the magnetic strength of the lunar environment;
  • KPLO Gamma Ray Spectrometer to study the the chemical composition of lunar surface materials; and
  • Delay-Tolerant Networking experiment to evaluate communication systems for future surface vehicles.

ShadowCam is 800 times more sensitive than a similar camera flown on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. ShadowCam was developed for the space agency by Arizona State University and Malin Space Science Systems.

The second phase of the Korean Lunar Exploration Program (KLEP) will include the launch of a lunar orbiter, a lander, and a 20 kg (44 lb) rover aboard a Nuri booster in 2025.

South Korea has signed the Artemis Accords, a set of guidelines for exploring the moon and space formulated by the United States. Other signatories include Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.