SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea launched its first homegrown space rocket on Tuesday, the country’s second attempt after a launch several months ago failed to deliver a payload into orbit.
A successful launch would fuel South Korea’s growing space ambitions, some experts say, but also prove it possesses the key technology to build space-based surveillance systems and larger missiles in a hostile situation with rival North Korea.
At 4 p.m., a three-stage Nuri rocket carrying what officials said was a functional “performance verification” satellite launched from South Korea’s only space launch center, located on an island off the country’s southern coast.
Officials will announce the results of the launch later on Tuesday.
On its first attempt last October, the rocket’s dummy payload reached its intended altitude of 700 kilometers (435 miles), but did not reach orbit because the engines of the rocket’s third stage burned out earlier than planned.
If Tuesday’s launch is successful, South Korea will become the 10th country in the world to use its own technology to send satellites into space.
South Korea is the world’s 10th largest economy and a major supplier of semiconductors, automobiles and smartphones to the world market. But its space development program lags behind Asian neighbors China, India and Japan.
North Korea put its first and second Earth observation satellites into orbit in 2012 and 2016, but there is no evidence that either of them ever transmitted space-based imagery and data back home. The launches by North Korea have triggered economic sanctions from the United Nations as they are seen as a cover for testing the country’s banned long-range missile technology.
Since the early 1990s, South Korea has sent a large number of satellites into space, but all from overseas launch sites or rockets built with foreign technology. In 2013, South Korea successfully launched a satellite from its homeland for the first time, but the first stage of its launch vehicle was built by the Russians.
After liftoff on Tuesday, South Korea plans to conduct four more Nuri rocket launches in the coming years. It also hopes to send probes to the moon, build the next generation of space launch vehicles, and put large satellites into orbit.
South Korean officials say the Nouri rocket has no military purpose.
The transfer of space launch technology is severely restricted under the multilateral export control regime because of its military use. Experts say ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles have similar bodies, engines and other components, but missiles require reentry vehicles and other technology.
“If you put a satellite on top of a rocket, it becomes a space launch vehicle. But if you put a warhead on it, it becomes a weapon,” said Kwon Yong-soo, a former professor at South Korea’s National Defense University. “If we were successful with the Nouri launch, it would really make sense because we also successfully tested a long-range rocket that could be used to make long-range missiles.”
Lee Chun-geun, an honorary researcher at the Korea Institute for Science and Technology Policy, said it would be difficult to use the Nuri directly as a missile because the liquid fuel it uses must be kept at extremely low temperatures and takes longer to fuel than solid fuel. North Korea, he said The long-range missiles also use liquid fuel, but remain highly toxic at room temperature and require faster fuel times than the Nuri.
This year, North Korea has tested about 30 missiles with a potential range that puts the continental United States and its regional allies such as South Korea and Japan within striking distance.
Kwon said the successful launch of Nuri will prove that South Korea is also capable of putting spy satellites into orbit.
South Korea currently does not have its own military reconnaissance satellites and relies on US spy satellites to monitor North Korea’s strategic facilities. South Korea has said it will soon launch its own surveillance satellite.