South Korea has completed its first successful satellite launch using a domestically developed rocket, boosting its growing space ambitions.
Its launch on Tuesday also showed it has the key technologies needed to launch spy satellites and build larger missiles amid tensions with rival North Korea.
The science ministry said the three-stage Nuri rocket placed a functioning “performance verification” satellite at a target altitude of seven kilometers after launching at 4 p.m. from the South Korean space launch center on a southern island.
The satellite sent signals about its status to Antarctica’s unmanned South Korean station.
Ministry officials said it is carrying four smaller satellites that will be released for Earth observation and other missions in the coming days.
South Korean Science Minister Jong-ho Lee confirms the first success of the KSLV-2/Nuri three-stage rocket. 1500 kg performance validation satellite, with 4 cubes, orbited for 700 km. Lee says four more Nuri launches are planned by 2027. “Korea can now build its own space ecosystem.” pic.twitter.com/pyLSzPR21e
— Peter B. de Selding (@pbdes) June 21, 2022
“The science and technology of the Republic of Korea have made great progress,” Science Minister Lee Jong-Ho said during a televised news conference at the launch center.
“The government will continue its daring march to become a space force with the people.”
In a video conference with scientists and others involved in the launch, President Yoon Suk Yeol congratulated them on their achievement and promised to fulfill his campaign promise to establish a state aviation agency.
Live TV video showed the 47-meter rocket soaring into the sky amid bright flames and thick white smoke.
The launch made South Korea the tenth country in the world to place a satellite in space using its own technology.
It was the second Nuri missile launch in South Korea.
On the first attempt in October, the rocket’s dummy payload reached the desired height but failed to enter orbit because the rocket’s third-stage motor burned out earlier than planned.
North Korea launched Earth observation satellites into orbit in 2012 and 2016, although there’s no evidence that either ever sent home remote-based images and data.
The North Korean launches led to UN economic sanctions for being seen as a cover for testing the country’s banned long-range missile technology.
Since the early 1990s, South Korea has sent several satellites into space, but they all used foreign missile technology or launch sites.
In 2013, South Korea successfully launched a satellite from the ground for the first time, but the rocket’s first stage was Russian-made.
South Korea plans four more Nuri launches in the coming years.
It also hopes to send a probe to the moon, build next-generation space launch vehicles and send large-scale satellites into orbit.
South Korean officials said the Nuri missile has no military purpose.
“If you placed a satellite on top of a rocket, it would become a space launch vehicle. But if you mount a warhead on it, it becomes a weapon,” said Kwon Yong Soo, a former professor at Korea National Defense University in South Korea.
“(A successful launch) really makes sense because we also succeed in testing a long-range missile that can be used to build a long-range missile.”
South Korea already has missiles capable of hitting all of North Korea. Still, some experts say it also needs longer-range rockets because it is surrounded by regional military forces and potential adversaries.
“A long-range missile doesn’t mean much to us if we only think of North Korea. But, unfortunately, military powers such as China and Russia are close to us,” said Professor Kwon.
He said the successful launch of Nuri proves South Korea’s ability to send a spy satellite into orbit.
South Korea currently has no military reconnaissance satellites and relies on US spy satellites to monitor strategic facilities in North Korea.
South Korea has said it plans to launch its own surveillance satellites soon.