South Korea is now a Space-Faring Nation With the Orbital Launch of Their Homegrown Nuri Rocket

It looks like South Korea just joined the most exclusive club on the planet! With the launch of its Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle II (KSLV-II aka. the “Nuri” rocket) on June 21st, the country became the latest nation to demonstrate its ability to build and launch its own rockets to space. This was the Nuri’s second launch attempt, which took place eight months after the first attempt failed to deliver a test satellite to orbit back. This time, the rocket managed to reach space and deliver a payload of satellites, making South Korea the eleventh nation to launch from its soil and the seventh to launch commercial satellites.

The Nuri rocket (Korean for “world”) is a three-stage liquid-fuel heavy launch vehicle that stands 47.2 meters (155 feet) tall and weighs roughly 200 metric tons (220 U.S. tons). This vehicle is the second rocket developed by South Korea and is the successor to the Naro-1 (KSLV-1). The first launch attempt took place on October 21st, 2021, which saw the Nuri rocket successfully reach an altitude of 700 km (430 mi) and the successful deployment of its 1,500 kg (3,300 lbs) payload (the test satellite). However, a technical issue with the 3rd stage prevented it from reaching deployment altitude and placing the satellite in orbit.

The second attempt (Tuesday, June 21st) saw the rocket launch from the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea, at 07:00 GMT (03:00 PM EDT; 12:00 PM PDT). This time, the rocket reached space and successfully deployed its entire 1,500 kg (3,300) payload to orbit. This included a smaller test satellite (1300 kg; 2,900 lbs) and a 180 kg (400 lbs) payload consisting of a rocket launch verification satellite and four research CubeSats developed by local universities.

The previous nation to enter the space launch club was North Korea, which successfully launched an Earth observation satellite (Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2) atop an Unha-3 rocket in December of 2012. However, both the rocket and the payload were considerably less sophisticated than that of their South Korean counterparts. The three-stage Unha rocket, which is largely derived from the North Korean Taepodong-2 nuclear delivery system, weighs about 86,750 kg (191,250 lbs) and can deliver only 200 kg (lbs) to orbit.

The Nuri rocket, meanwhile, is capable of delivering 1,500 kg to 2,600 kg (3,300 to 5,700 lbs) to LEO (depending on the altitude), which works out to a mass-to-payload ratio (aka. payload fraction) of 77 to 1. While this lags significantly behind other heavy launch systems used today, it is significantly better than Unhi’s paltry payload fraction of 433.75 to 1! And whereas North Korea has launched only one Earth observation satellite (Kwangmyongsong-4) since 2012, this latest test launch represents a major step for South Korea, which is likely to commit to regular launch schedules soon.

It also places South Korea in good standing among other Asian space powers – China, Japan, and India – and opens the door for future collaborations in space. Before the ISS program expires (likely by 2030), South Korea could be sending its astronauts using homemade launch vehicles that would launch from their spaceports. Welcome to the space club, South Korea! The membership dues are steep, but the payoffs are immeasurable!

Further Reading: Aljazeera