Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Worthy Attempt

Caption: A Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV) lifts off from the launch facility at Goheung, South Korea, Aug. 25, 2009. More pictures at Monsters And Critics.

Image credit: KARI

Yesterday, I didn't even know South Korea had a space program. Apparently, it's just getting off the ground, as Al Jazeera reports:

After years of delays, South Korea successfully launched its two-stage Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle 1 (KSLV-1) from the Naro space centre in the south of the country on Tuesday, but Lee Myung-bak, the president, called the exercise only a "half success".

"We must further strive to realise the dream of becoming a space power," Lee's office quoted him as saying after the satellite failed to achieve its intended orbit.

South Korea spent more than $400m on the satellite and rocket, the first stage of which was built in Russia and the second stage by South Korea.

S Korea Satellite 'Burnt And Lost' fills in a bit of the background:

Russia's Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which built the KSLV-1's liquid-fueled first stage, said in a statement Aug. 25 that its hardware performed as designed during the launch. "The Russian side of the joint project should regard the launch as successful while for the Korean side it is only partially so," Khrunichev said in a statement posted on its Web site.

South Korea built the rocket's second stage and payload.

A glitch with the first stage of the KSLV-1 forced South Korean officials to postpone an Aug. 19 launch attempt.

South Korean Launch Ends in Failure With Missing Satellite article was written before the fate of the satellite had been determined. As Al Jazeera reports, the satellite did not reach orbit, because the payload doors opened improperly. The resulting drag prevented the rocket from putting the satellite into orbit.

The rocket is designed to put smallish satellites, such as communications satellites, into low Earth orbit (LEO):

According to Khrunichev, the KSLV is 33 meters [108 feet] tall, 2.9 meters [9 ft., 6 in.] in diameter and weighs 140 metric [150 english] tons. It is capable of placing a satellite weighing 100 kilograms [220 lb.] into an elliptical orbit with a perigee of 300 kilometers [180 mi.] and an apogee of 1,500 kilometers [900 mi.].

South Korean Launch Ends in Failure With Missing Satellite

Things that are in such orbits include the International Space Station (ISS), Global Positioning System (GPS), and many earth observation satellites. While there are already launch vehicles that can do this, this is a worthwhile capability to develop.

Caption: Test of Vanguard launch vehicle for U.S. International Geophysical Year (IGY) program to place satellite in Earth orbit to determine atmospheric density and conduct geodetic measurements. Malfunction in first stage caused vehicle to lose thrust after two seconds and vehicle was destroyed.

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

The malfunction will no doubt be investigated and corrected. As I've mentioned before, rockets are complicated machines that perform difficult tasks. Failures are inevitable with a new design. The picture of this Vanguard rocket test, one of our early rocket programs, shows how badly things can go in this field. One of the peculiar problems of rocket design is how spectacular and expensive those failures can be.

South Korea is to be commended for attempting this. Of the nine nations that have successfully launched their own satellites, most are much larger than Korea, with much larger gross domestic products. Their leaders were willing to risk spectacular, expensive failures in the pursuit of an important capability.

I wish our leaders were as interested in the future as theirs.


spincitysd said...


Not to be a wet blanket but one does have to look at the Geopolitics of this launch.

This "satellite launch" had a less benign implications. Specifically it was a response to Soul's less than friendly neighbor to the north the DPRK. Pyongyang has been tossing up a large number of malfunctioning Taepodong for the last few years. While many of these devices only managed to belly-flop into the Sea of Japan the implicit threat of these missiles has unnerved both South Korea and Japan. It doesn't help that Kim Jong Il's proletarian paradise has been busily tinkering away at nuclear device for the last decade. Fortunately the Stalinist state has been rather incompetent in its effort to make something that goes Ka-boom in the night. They still have not got that implosion thing sorted out--yet.

Thus the launch was a lot more successful than one would think. The South Koreans can down-grade this satellite launcher into a very credible weapons system. North Korea and its Chinese enabler has been put on notice.

Cujo359 said...

I'd considered this possibility, and while having the ability to assemble rockets and build an upper stage is a step toward having tactically useful rockets, it's a small one. There are also other things that argue against this being any more than an effort to gain the most basic capabilities for rockets like the ones the NKs are building:

- There's no tactical advantage for South Korea to have such rockets. They're much longer range than is needed to hit targets in the North. The big NK rockets are a threat to Japan, and to a lesser extent, us. That's because:

- The North Koreans already have plenty of weapons with which to hit South Korean cities, and vice versa.

- The main stage of these rockets is supplied by Russia. To make a useful tactical rocket, the SKs would either need Russia's cooperation, which is unlikely, or they need to develop a main stage on their own, which could be seen as provocative by both Russia and China.

As long as the US-SK relationship is in place, South Korea doesn't need missiles like this. It's unlikely that that relationship will change any time soon.

spincitysd said...


Point taken. Still this test opens a door that could lead to a new configuration in Asia.

Russia could be more of a wild card than supposed. Besides there are solid Realpolitik reason why Russia may want to curb the cats-paw that the DPRK has become. Russia shares a border with North Korea and it probably has no enthusiasm for the reckless way the North tosses around Taepodongs.

Russia may be trying to use missile technology to pry loose South Korea from Uncle Sam's embrace. By aiding the South's drive for space, the Russian are ingratiating themselves to Seoul. The South Korean get a little more self-reliant and Russia gains clout in the peninsula. More to the point Russia may not mind that the missiles in question could reach China. That might be the entire point.

Any satellite launcher is a dual-use technology. It can launch either telecommunications gear or something a lot less benign. The purpose could be peaceful but that does not guarantee a peaceful intent somewhere down the line.