(News Focus) (rocket launch) Rocket launch to mark turning point in Korea's space exploration
By Lee Joon-seung
SEOUL, June 7 (Yonhap) -- The successful launch of a satellite-carrying rocket this week would signify a coming of age for South Korea's budding space exploration history, which the government says will include building a lunar orbital probe within the next 15 years.
The building of the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1), scheduled to lift off Wednesday afternoon, has given the country first-hand experience in designing, building and testing powerful space rockets, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said.
It said if the launch is successful, Seoul could join the ranks of the exclusive "space club" -- countries that operate launch facilities and build satellites sent into orbit using locally assembled rockets.
The country launched the first KSLV-1, also called the Naro-1, on August 25, but a problem in the fairing assembly made it impossible to place the 100 kilogram scientific satellite into orbit, although all other systems worked without a hitch.
The Naro-1 stands 33 meters tall with a diameter of 2.9m, and can generate 170 tons of thrust that can send a 100kg satellite into orbit.
Seoul has spent 502.5 billion won (US$418.1 million) since 2002 to build the rocket and learn related technologies with Russian assistance and technical supervision.
The first-stage main rocket was built in Russia with no sharing of technology, but 150 South Korean engineers worked side-by-side with their Russian counterparts for almost two years on the design and systems development.
"By working with Russian counterparts, local engineers now know how a rocket is designed and built, which is vital for building the country's own machines in the future," Kim Young-shik, a senior science ministry official, said.
He added that because the first launch was only "half-successful," engineers have learned first-hand the need to thoroughly check every system again and again.
"Prior to the first launch, technicians only checked what they had made and assembled, but now they have developed a system of cross-checking related systems," the deputy minister said.
Others at the state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) in charge of the space rocket program claim that acquiring overall know-how on how a rocket is developed is of greater importance than simply acquiring technology to build a rocket engine technology.
"This is crucial since the country is preparing to build an entirely South Korean-made space rocket before 2020 and a probe that can orbit the moon by 2025," a KARI engineer said.
He said no country currently shares space exploration-related technologies and know-how, making it doubly hard to see how they design new rockets.
Related to South Korea's potential in this sector, experts said local capabilities are roughly at 70-75 percent of the level of leaders in the overall rocket sector, while the country's capabilities in the critical engine area stand at around 60 percent of the level achieved by countries like the United States and Russia.
"The rocket should be thought of as laying the foundation for all future development," said Chae Yeon-seok, a senior research fellow at KARI.
The aerospace expert said that while South Korea started development 40 years later than others, it has shown its engineering prowess by launching the 17-ton thrust Korea Sounding Rocket-3 rocket in 2002 without any foreign assistance.
"Such a feat is not easy, and if local engineers have learned from their Russian partners and there is adequate funding, the country could make great strides," Chae said.
He added that what the country needs the most is to construct an up-to-date engine test facility to see if locally made rocket engines meet operational requirements.
This view was shared by Yoon Woong-sup, a professor of mechanical engineer at Seoul's Yonsei University.
He said close cooperation has helped local technicians gain valuable insight even if they have not been able to get a very close look at the rocket.
The professor said that such information and know-how can be useful as the country plans to build larger rockets of its own down the road.
KARI, meanwhile, said besides learning the entire process of learning how to build a main booster rocket, the Naro-1 project has helped local engineers build the second stage, solid fuel rocket and the nose fairing to house the satellite.
The second-stage rocket worked flawlessly in the first launch, while Seoul has redesigned the fairing assembly to avoid another malfunction.
The space agency added that South Korea has effectively completed work on a 30-ton thrust engine and started initial design work on a larger 70-ton thrust rocket unit that can send up a 1.5 ton satellite.
KARI said another benefit reaped from the Naro-1 was the construction of the Naro Space Center at Oenarodo Island on South Korea's southern coast. The center, 485 kilometers south of Seoul, has state-of-the-art facilities that can be used to launch rockets and satellites in the future.
South Korea has sent 10 satellites into space, with nine more to be sent into orbit by 2015.
"On average, a satellite may be sent up every year, and if such machines can be sent by indigenous rockets, it could save the country money and expense," a KARI engineer said.
Other benefits that can be derived from the successful launch of the KSLV-1 are growth in the country's science and technology levels, national defense and prestige.
A country with rocket-launch capabilities can build and send its own intelligence satellite without concerns that sensitive technology may fall into the wrong hands.
Besides the aerospace field, a successful launch and more support for the sector can lead to positive spin-offs in technology that can be used by local businesses.
Technologies for many common products like digital cameras, mobile phones, car navigation systems and water filters were originally developed for space exploration.
In the long run, the Naro-1 will help lay a solid foundation as South Korea embarks on its space exploration project that calls for the building of a powerful indigenous rocket by 2020, as well as a probe that can orbit the moon before 2025, experts say.