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What's next for Korea's space program after successful launch of Nuri?

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A photo sent from the Nuri space rocket shows the performance verification satellite's separation from the locally developed launch vehicle, Tuesday. Courtesy of Korea Aerospace Research Institute
A photo sent from the Nuri space rocket shows the performance verification satellite's separation from the locally developed launch vehicle, Tuesday. Courtesy of Korea Aerospace Research Institute

Countdown to lunar exploration starts in earnest

By Park Jae-hyuk

Korea's plan to send a landing module to the Moon by 2031 using a locally developed space rocket has gained momentum thanks to the successful launch of Nuri, according to aerospace experts, Wednesday.

The space rocket, also known as Korean Space Launch Vehicle II (KSLV-II), placed a 1.3-ton dummy satellite and a 162.5-kilogram performance verification satellite into a low orbit of 700 kilometers above the Earth, Tuesday, making Korea become the world's seventh country to put a satellite into geosynchronous orbit with its own launch vehicle.

The Ministry of Science and ICT confirmed that the performance verification satellite successfully made two-way communication with the ground station at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) in Daejeon, at 3:01 a.m. on Wednesday. Starting from next Wednesday, four small cube satellites will be released in a row from the performance verification satellite to conduct various science projects, such as the observation of fine dust and geographical features.

The science ministry and KARI are also preparing for follow-up space missions, including the exploration of the Moon.

"The Nuri is scheduled for its third launch in the first half of 2023," Science Minister Lee Jong-ho told reporters after the successful launch on Tuesday. "Until 2027, a total of four liftoffs will be conducted."

The forthcoming launches, which are intended to enhance the launch vehicle's reliability, will cost a combined 687.4 billion won ($530 million), according to the ministry.

After launching a next-generation small satellite in 2023, the Nuri will send into space a microsatellite and a next-generation mid-size satellite in 2024, five additional microsatellites in 2026 and five more microsatellites in 2027.

In August, the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter named "Danuri" will be launched to the Moon at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, carried by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. That will mark Korea's first-ever exploration of deep space.

Following a four-month voyage, Danuri is expected begin orbiting the moon in December at an altitude of 100 kilometers. It will then observe the Moon in orbit, conducting various science projects until December 2023. It will especially look for places for Korea's unmanned lunar landing module to land in the future.

If Danuri succeeds in its mission, Korea will become the world's seventh country to explore the Moon.

"Supporting Korea's first lunar orbiter to successfully carry out its duty, we will not stop our efforts to make Korea a powerhouse in space exploration," a KARI official said.

The highlight of Korea's space adventure over the next decade will be the launch of the KSLV-III carrying a locally developed lunar landing module. Aiming to launch its own lunar landing module in 2031, Korea seeks to invest 1.9 trillion won in the project.

Until now, the U.S., the Soviet Union and China are the only three countries that have succeeded in a lunar landing.

If Korea successfully develops the next-generation launch vehicle that can carry a 10-ton payload by using five 100-ton liquid-fueled engines, the country will test fire the rocket in 2030.


Park Jae-hyuk pjh@koreatimes.co.kr


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