|South Korea's first military communications satellite, the ANASIS-II, sits atop SpaceX's Falcon-9 rocket as it is readied for launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, July 20 (local time). Courtesy of Defense Acquisition Program Administration|
Lack of infrastructure and low demand cited as lingering problems
By Jung Da-min
South Korea's recent announcement of a deal on new missile guidelines with the United States lifted a decades-long restriction on South Korea's use of solid fuels for its space launch vehicles. Expectations have since risen that South Korea will be able to launch its own low-Earth orbit military spy satellites atop rockets produced by domestic manufacturers.
The presidential office said the lift of the ban would help advance the South Korean military's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities by enabling launch of low-Earth orbit satellites atop solid propellants. It said such satellites would provide around-the-clock military surveillance, dubbed the "unblinking eye."
Cheong Wa Dae said the lifting of the ban would also help businesses and individuals in the country's private sector, especially talented young experts, to actively jump into space projects, as it secures an institutional foundation that supports construction of space industry infrastructure.
Such a rosy picture for South Korea's space industry, however, is not likely to be realized in the near future as there are many hurdles ahead for South Korea to develop its own rockets and establish them in the market, according to defense industry watchers.
First of all, they said South Korea would have difficulty in competing with other countries which could provide more advanced technologies and services at lower prices with their already established space industry infrastructure.
"The South Korean government should consider if it is worth it to develop the country's own solid propellants when it could use those developed by foreign manufacturers like SpaceX, which would cost far less," Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, told The Korea Times, referring to the U.S. space giant. SpaceX's Falcon9 rocket recently carried South Korea's first military communications satellite, ANASIS-II, into space.
"And the thing is that even if South Korea develops its own rockets, they would not be able to excel more than aerospace giants like SpaceX in terms of technology," Shin said.
So far, the South Korean government has a 3 trillion won ($25.2 billion) budget for the development of space rockets, spending 1 trillion won for the Naro-1, South Korea's first carrier rocket, and 2 trillion won for Nuri, the country's second carrier rocket. The KARI developed both rockets.
"The costs spent by the South Korean government to develop the two rockets were 10 times higher than those spent by SpaceX," Kim Seung-jo, former president of KARI, said in a recent interview with ChosunBiz. "But the South Korean government's outcomes in its rocket projects were far behind the Falcon9 rocket produced by SpaceX."
Kim said the government-led industry structure was the reason for the high costs and the low speed of the space rocket developments. He pointed out that when the government leads space development projects, they receive more criticism for failures such as unsuccessful launches ― especially since the projects are funded by taxpayers ― but more failures in the early stages of development could save more in the long run, as researchers learn a great deal through each challenge.
|South Korea's first military communications satellite, the ANASIS-II, sits atop SpaceX's Falcon-9 rocket as it is readied for launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, July 20 (local time). Courtesy of Defense Acquisition Program Administration|
A lack of infrastructure is also one of the hurdles.
South Korea now has the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jolla Province, operated by the state-run Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI). But the spaceport could only be used for low-Earth orbit satellites that reach altitudes of between 500 kilometers to 1,500 kilometers, not for those that reach geostationary orbit of around 36,000 kilometers.
When launching a satellite into geostationary orbit to rotate along with the Earth, launching it from a spaceport that is close to the equator could save a lot of energy used for propulsion. For the ANASIS-II, which reached geostationary orbit 10 days after launch, it had been launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida ― which is close to the equator ― to gain a propulsion advantage from the speed of the Earth's rotation.
For South Korea, there is a need to build a sea-based spaceport near the equator or conduct launches at spaceports in other countries that are close enough to the equator ― like the U.S.'s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
There is also an issue of low demand for rockets manufactured in the private sector. For space manufacturers based in the U.S., for example, they receive a lot of requests to launch their rockets including those from the country's space forces and from other businesses.
But the situation is different in South Korea especially when it has yet to build its own satellite-based radio-navigation system such as the U.S. government's Global Positioning System. The KARI is currently designing plans to develop the Korean Positioning System but industry watchers say it wouldn't be developed until at least 2035.
Under such circumstances, operating liquid propellants and solid propellants at the same time could be a waste of money, when both sectors require many rounds of test launches to be established in the market.
|Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy director of the National Security Office, gives explanations about revisions on missile guidelines with the United States during a press briefing on at Cheong Wa Dae, July 28. Korea Times photo by Wang Tae-seok|
Despite the hurdles South Korea faces in pushing ahead with space development projects, Cheong Wa Dae is painting a rosy picture of the country's space industry.
Announcing the lift of the ban on solid propellants through the revision of U.S.-South Korea missile guidelines, July 28, Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy director of the National Security Office, said, "The South Korean version of the SpaceX project can be realized soon," referring to the recent launch of the ANASIS-II.
A launch vehicle, often called a rocket, carries a satellite, a space telescope or a space probe into orbit, with its own oxidizing agent to operate in the vacuum beyond the atmosphere. A rocket carries either solid or liquid propellants that provide both the fuel and oxidizer required for combustion.
Solid and liquid propellants have different strengths and weaknesses. Solid propellants, much easier to store and handle than liquid propellants, have shorter burn times and are more simple and low cost, thus making them ideal for military applications. But solid fuel rockets have a lower specific impulse, a measure of propellant efficiency, than liquid fuel rockets which have a lower mass ratio but are usually more reliable.
While many countries were adopting hybrid propellants to utilize strengths of both solid and liquid propellants, South Korea had been banned from using solid fuels since 1979 under the South Korea-U.S. missile guidelines which are divided into three parts ― military-use ballistic missiles, military-use cruise missiles and space rockets.
With the lift of the ban on the use of solid fuel, South Korea is now able to freely develop and use solid, liquid and hybrid fuels under cooperation between the government and the private sector.