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Korea launches 3rd Nuri rocket

Homegrown rocket carries 8 satellites into space

May 25, 2023 - 19:08 By Kan Hyeong-woo
South Korea launches the homegrown Nuri rocket for the third time, Thursday at 6:24 p.m. from the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province. (Ministry of Science and ICT)

GOHEUNG, South Jeolla Province -- South Korea successfully conducted the third launch of the homegrown Nuri rocket Thursday, as the satellite launch vehicle reached the targeted altitude and released satellites into orbit, marking another space milestone for the country.

“Following the success of the Nuri rocket’s second launch last year, today’s third launch affirmed the Nuri rocket’s flight capability and secured reliability. At the same time, it was a chance to reaffirm our potential in launch services, operating various satellites and space exploration,” said Lee Jong-ho, Minister of Science and ICT, in a press briefing.

The Nuri rocket completed the flight sequence as it reached an altitude of 550 kilometers at a speed of 7.6 kilometers per second in 783 seconds, or 13 minutes and 3 seconds, after blastoff from the country’s southern coast at 6:24 p.m.

Unlike the first and second launches, the Nuri rocket’s third mission carried the country’s second next-generation small satellite named NEXTSat-2 into orbit, along with seven other cube satellites.

The NEXTSat-2, developed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, will operate the homegrown synthetic aperture radar and observe space radiation. The state-run Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute and three private companies -- Lumir, Justek and Kairo Space -- developed the cube satellites. Their missions include observing Earth, testing the waste-reduction technology in space and analyzing the changes of microplasma in space.

The Ministry of Science and ICT and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute confirmed that the rocket, also known as the Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle-II, ejected seven of the eight satellites it carried into orbit. Officials said more time is needed to verify if one of the four cube satellites developed by KASI was properly released.

The ministry will hold a press briefing to announce whether the eight satellites are working well in space at 11 a.m. on Friday.

“The most important thing for us and the main mission was for the Nuri rocket to enter the targeted orbit and release the NEXTSat-2 without a problem. Because those two objects were achieved, we consider (the Nuri rocket’s third launch) a success,” said Ko Jeong-hwan, the head of KARI’s KSLV-II project.

The third launch of the homegrown rocket was delayed from Wednesday to Thursday as a problem with the software communication occurred on the ground. The launch control committee decided to postpone the mission about three hours before the scheduled launch. The issue was a communication malfunction between computers that control the launch operation and the launch pad’s equipment. The helium valve of the umbilical cables connected to the rocket could not be operated automatically.

Once the officials became aware of the problem, engineers began to fix the malfunction on Wednesday afternoon. The repair process was completed a little after 5 a.m. on Thursday morning. The engineers carried out multiple tests to ensure the software’s automatic communication.

The Nuri rocket’s third launch marked the first time for a private system integration company to take part in the project.

Hanwha Aerospace, the space arm under South Korea’s seventh-largest conglomerate Hanwha Group, participated in the Nuri rocket’s third launch as the system integration company, reflecting the government’s intention to nurture the country’s space industry. KARI will continue to transfer the knowledge of assembling the Nuri rocket and launch operations to Hanwha Aerospace with three more launches through 2027.

“Despite Korea becoming the seventh space powerhouse, the gap between global space leaders and Korea remains large. The important thing is how we bridge that gap,” said Hanwha Aerospace CEO Son Jae-il.

“We think our country’s infrastructure, personnel and industry have to come together to go beyond borders. We will enhance our global competitiveness as one team.”

The Nuri rocket’s second launch in June last year made South Korea the seventh country in the world to have its own technology put a satellite weighing 1 metric ton or heavier into low-Earth orbit between altitudes of 600 and 800 kilometers. The other countries who have managed this feat are China, France, India, Japan, Russia and the US. Korea’s first attempt in October 2021 was unsuccessful, as it fell short of putting a dummy satellite into orbit.

“Just because we succeeded last time, it does not mean that we will succeed this time. With maximum checkups, we believe that it is a process to enhance the Nuri rocket’s reliability and safety. That’s also why we have the third, four, fifth and sixth launches,” First Vice Minister of Science and ICT Oh Tae-seog told reporters.

The Nuri rocket project, with a budget of 2 trillion won ($1.5 billion), began in 2010. The country’s previous rocket project -- the Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle-I, or the Naro rocket -- was successfully launched in January 2013, about 10 1/2 years after the project began in August 2002. The 500 billion won Naro project used Russia’s 170-ton engine for the first-stage rocket.