South Korea Reached Major Space Milestones in 2022

The maiden launch of South Korea’s Nuri booster. (Credit: Korea Aerospace Research Institute)

On June 21, South Korea’s domestically manufactured Nuri rocket roared off the pad at the Naro Space Center and placed satellites into orbit for the first time. Six months later, South Korea’s first lunar probe entered orbit around the moon, putting an exclamation point on a breakthrough year for the emerging Asian space power.

South Korea also tested two new orbital-class boosters on suborbital flights, a startup prepared for its first rocket launch, and an investment group began efforts to bring Virgin Orbit’s air-launch service to the peninsula.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced plans to establish a new space agency modeled on NASA in 2023. He also double the nation’s space budget over the next five years, and set the goals of landing a spacecraft on the moon in 2032 and one on Mars in 2045.

Meanwhile, North Korea conducted three suborbital flights to test technology for a reconnaissance satellite.

Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (Danuri) (Credit: Ministry of Science and ICT)

South Korea Explores the Moon

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched South Korea’s first mission to the moon on Aug. 4. Danuri, also known as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, entered orbit four months later on Dec. 16.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) developed Danuri, which had a launch mass of 678 kg (1,495 lb). Danuri is searching for water ice, aluminum, helium-3, silicon and uranium on the lunar surface. Scientists will use the data the spacecraft returns to create a topographical map of the moon to assist future lunar landings.

Danuri is equipped with five South Korean instruments and a NASA camera. The instruments include:

  • Lunar Terrain Imager
  • Wide-Angle Polarimetric Camera
  • KPLO Magnetometer
  • KPLO Gamma Ray Spectrometer
  • Delay-Tolerant Networking experiment
  • NASA’s ShadowCam.
An image of a permanently shadowed part of Shackleton crater taken by NASA’s ShadowCam aboard South Korea’s Danuri lunar orbiter. (Credit: NASA/KARI/Arizona State University)

NASA’s ShadowCam will search for evidence of water ice in permanently shadowed regions of the moon. The instrument is 800 times more sensitive than the camera used on the space agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Scientists at Arizona State University and Malin Space Science Systems developed the camera.

Successful Nuri Launch

Nuri succeed on its second flight. The booster failed during its maiden launch in October 2021 due to a design flaw in its third stage.

Nuri rocket lifts off from the Naro Space Center on June 21, 2022. (Credit: KARI)

Nuri, which is also known as the Korean Satellite Launch Vehicle II, is designed to give South Korea its own domestic launch capability. Five other Asia-Pacific nations — China, India, Japan, New Zealand and North Korea — have launched satellites into orbit from their own soil.

Nuri is capable of launching 2,600 kg (5,732 lb) into a 300-km (186-mile) high low Earth orbit (LEO) or 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) into a 600-800 km (373-497 mile) high orbit. South Korean engineers are working to developed a lighter and more powerful version of the booster’s first-stage engine that would increase Nuri’s payload to 2,800 kg (6,173 lb).

Nuri Flight No. 2 Payloads
June 21, 2022

PayloadOperator/BuilderPurpose
Performance Verification SatelliteKARIVerify rocket performance
Monochrome Imaging for Monitoring Aerosol by NanosatelliteYonsei UniversityMonitor find dust on Korean Peninsula
Repeater Arrangement & Disaster Early ViewKorea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST)Gather hazard image data from volcanoes, coastlines and clouds
SNUGLITE-IISeoul National UniversityAmateur radio communications
Space Technology Experimental Project CubeSat Laboratory 2 (STEP Cube Lab 2)Chosun UniversityEarth observation
Mass simulatorKARILaunch vehicle evaluation
Dummy satelliteKARILaunch vehicle evaluation
Source: Wikipedia

The three-stage, 47.2 meter (154.9 foot) tall rocket 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 use Jet A-1 fuel and liquid oxygen.

It was only the second orbital launch from South Korea. A Naro-1 booster consisting of a Russian liquid-fuel first stage and a South Korean solid-fuel second stage launched the STSAT-2C technology demonstration satellite in January 2013. The booster, which was retired after its successful flight, had failed during two earlier launch attempts.

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

Launcher Upgrades & Tech Transfer

South Korea is making a major effort to improve the nation’s launch vehicle technology through a five-year, 687.38 billion won ($587 million) plan that began in 2022.

“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 while jointly carrying out the production and repeated launches of the launch vehicle,” the press release added.

In December, KARI awarded Hanwha Aerospace a $216.7 million (286 billion won) contract to oversee the production of and improvements to the Nuri launch vehicle. Hanwha will oversee launch vehicle integration and manage suppliers. KARI will transfer technology to the company.

Engineers 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.

LauncherOne ignites after being dropped from Cosmic Girl. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Orbit Eyes South Korea

In August, Virgin Orbit announced the signing of an agreement with investment group J-Space to assess candidate spaceport sites in South Korea. Virgin Orbit is looking to bring it California-based air launch satellite service to the country.

“Drawing on local expertise and funding by J-Space and on launch and mission expertise from Virgin Orbit, the partnership will focus its initial efforts on linking with local South Korean high-tech industries and formulating end-to-end mission solutions that will benefit the nation and broader region. The partners aim to develop a roadmap that will result in launch site identification and operations, delineate specific investor and business objectives, and identify key partners in the region,” Virgin Orbit said.

Richard Branson’s company recently conducted its first launch outside the United States from Spaceport Cornwall in England. All previous launches had originated from the Mojave Air and Space Port at Rutan Field in California. Virgin Orbit also plans to launch from spaceports in Australia, Brazil and Japan.

Launch of Blue Whale 0.1 rocket. (Credit: Perigee Aerospace)

Suborbital Flights

On March 24, South Korean startup Perigee Aerospace conducted the third flight test of its Blue Whale 0.1 launcher from Jeju Island. The suborbital rocket tested technology for Blue Whale 1, a two-stage orbital booster powered by liquid oxygen and liquid natural gas.

Blue Whale 1 will be capable of orbiting satellites weighing 40 kg (88.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high sun-synchronous orbit, or 50 kg (110.2 lb) into a 500 km (310.7 mile) high LEO. Launches are planned from Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in Australia.

South Korea Suborbital Flights, 2022

DateOrganizationPartnerLaunch VehiclePurpose
March 24, 2022Perigee AerospaceKorea Advanced Institute of Science and TechnologyBlue Whale 0.1Third flight test of smallsat launcher
March 30, 2022Ministry of National DefenseSolid Fuel Space ProjectileSmallsat launcher flight test
Dec. 30, 2022Ministry of National DefenseSolid Fuel Space ProjectileSmallsat launcher flight test
Source: Wikipedia

Perigee has received investment from Samsung Venture Investments and LB Investment. The company has also received support from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which is a national research institute.

Six days after Perigee’s launch, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense launched the Solid Fuel Space Projectile with a dummy payload on a suborbital flight. The launch was part of a development program aimed at producing a booster capable of launching 500-kg (1,102.3 lb) satellites into orbit. The first orbital flight is scheduled for around 2024.

South Korea’s solid-fuel space projectile launches on a flight test on March 30, 2022 (Credit: South Korea Ministry of National Defense)

South Korea conducted a second suborbital test of the Solid Fuel Space Projectile on Dec. 30. The Ministry of National Defense said the flight was successful.

Innospace Unveils First Civilian Launch Vehicle

A private company named Innospace also unveiled a suborbital launch vehicle named HANBIT-TLV (test launch vehicle) last year. The 16.3 m tall booster is designed to verify the flight performance of Innospace’s 15-ton hybrid rocket engine. The engine uses high-performance paraffin and liquid oxygen as propellants.

HANBIT-LTV rocket on the launch pad at the Alcantara Space Center in Brazil. (Credit: Innospace)

The test vehicle is a precursor to the two-stage HANBIT-Nano small-satellite launch vehicle, which will be capable of launching 50 kg (102 lb) into orbit.

Innospace begun preparations to conduct a flight test of HANBIT-TLV from the Alcantara Space Center in Brazil in December. The company was forced to postpone the launch until this year due to technical issues.

Innospace has signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct launches into polar and sun-synchronous orbits from the Andoya Space Center in northern Norway.

North Korean Suborbital Tests

North Korea was also busy with suborbital flights in 2022. On Feb. 26, the People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force launched the two-stage Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile to an apogee of about 620 km (385 miles). The flight’s purpose was to test an imaging system for use on a future reconnaissance satellite.

DateOrganizationPartnerLaunch VehiclePurpose
Feb. 26, 2022KPA Strategic Rocket ForceNational Aerospace Development AdministrationHwasong-17Tested imaging system for future reconnaissance satellite
Dec. 18, 2022KPA Strategic Rocket ForceNational Aerospace Development AdministrationPukguksong-2Tested imaging system for future reconnaissance satellite
Dec. 18, 2022KPA Strategic Rocket ForceNational Aerospace Development AdministrationPukguksong-2Tested imaging system for future reconnaissance satellite
Source: Wikipedia

On Dec. 18, North Korea launched a pair of Pukguksong-2 ballistic missiles that it said contained an imaging systems for reconnaissance satellites. The flights were conducted from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.