South Korea says homegrown space rocket put satellites into orbit

By Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea’s domestically made space rocket delivered a commercial grade satellite into orbit for the first time on Thursday, the country’s science minister said, a breakthrough in its ambitions to compete in a space race with its Asian neighbours.

The Nuri rocket lifted off from Naro Space Center on the southern coast of South Korea at 6:24 p.m. (0924 GMT) in its third flight after technical glitches caused the launch to be cancelled a day earlier.

Among eight satellites aboard the rocket, the main commercial-grade satellite made contact with a base station in Antarctica after successfully separating from the space vehicle, Science Minister Lee Jong-ho said.

Six other cube satellites have also been deployed, but the science ministry said it was still checking if one remaining cube satellite was released normally.

President Yoon Suk Yeol said the launch placed South Korea among the top seven countries that have put domestically produced satellites into orbit with their domestically built space launch vehicles.

“This will greatly change the way the world sees South Korea’s space science technology and its advanced industry,” Yoon said.

Thursday’s launch was designed to load a commercial-grade satellite onto the rocket for the first time, after the second test in June last year successfully put dummy satellites into orbit.

On Wednesday, the ministry called off a planned launch hours before the scheduled time, citing technical problems, which officials described as communication errors within the system that controls a helium tank on the launch pad. They said that issue was fixed after work overnight.

The three-stage KSLV-II Nuri is the country’s first domestically built space launch vehicle using only South Korean rocket technology, and three more flights are expected by 2027.

The Nuri is central to the country’s ambitious plans to jumpstart its nascent space programme and boost progress in 6G networks, spy satellites and even lunar probes.

Given an arms race in Asia, space launches have long been a delicate issue, and North Korea is preparing to launch its first military spy satellite.

Seoul also plans to launch military satellites, but has ruled out any weapons use for the Nuri.

Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un approved final preparations for a satellite launch, without specifying a date.

Construction at North Korea’s satellite-launching station has hit a “new level of urgency,” a U.S.-based think tank said in a report on Thursday, citing satellite imagery.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Soo-hyang Choi; Editing by Ed Davies, Gerry Doyle, Paul Simao and Barbara Lewis)