South Korea was ready to test-launch its first domestically built space rocket on Thursday, a significant milestone in the country’s pursuit of a satellite launch program, authorities said.
The three-stage Nuri rocket was set to launch at approximately 4 p.m. (700 GMT) with the goal of delivering a fake cargo — a 1.5-ton block of stainless steel and aluminum — into orbit 600 to 800 kilometers (372 to 497 miles) above Earth, depending on weather and other factors.
Engineers completed building the 47-meter (154-foot) rocket on a launch pad at the Naro Space Center, South Korea’s lone spaceport, on a tiny island off the country’s southern coast, on Wednesday night, according to the country’s Science Ministry.
South Korea is attempting to become the tenth country to launch a satellite into orbit using its own technology, after depending on other countries to launch its satellites since the early 1990s.
According to officials, such a capability would be critical for the country’s space aspirations, which include plans to deploy more modern communications satellites and acquire its own military intelligence satellites. By 2030, the nation hopes to deploy a probe to the moon.
Nuri is the country’s first space launch vehicle designed fully in-house. The three-stage rocket, which is propelled by five 75-ton class rocket engines in the first and second stages, is planned to send a 1.5-ton payload into orbit 600 to 800 kilometers (372 to 497 miles) above Earth.
Nuri will be further tested by scientists and engineers at the Korea Aerospace Institute, including a mock launch in May 2022 before trying with a real satellite.
In 2013, South Korea launched a space launch vehicle from the Naro spaceport, which was a two-stage rocket based on Russian technology. That launch occurred after years of delays and failures — the Naro rocket achieved the necessary height in 2009 but failed to release a satellite into orbit, and then detonated shortly after takeoff in 2010.
It was unclear how North Korea would react to Thursday’s launch, which had been accused of exploiting previous satellite launches as a cover for developing long-range missile capability.
While pursuing its nuclear and missile programs, the North had expressed concern over South Korea’s increased military budget and plans to develop more powerful conventionally armed missiles.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accused the US and South Korea of “destroying the stability and balance” in the area with their joint military actions and a US-led “excessive weapons buildup” in the South in a speech to Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp parliament last month.
While Nuri is propelled by liquid propellants that must be refueled just before launch, South Korea plans to create a solid-fuel space launch rocket by 2024 that may be ready for launch faster and be more cost effective.