Korea Prepares for Crucial Rocket Launch
By Kim Tong-hyung
One of the most important moments in Korean science history will take place on July 30 at the brand new Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province, when the country launches its first spacecraft from its own soil.
Should the rocket, the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1, successfully deliver an experimental satellite into the low earth orbit, Korea will become the world's 10th nation to send a domestically-produced satellite into space from its own territory.
Public excitement for the event is great, and adds to the pressure for scientists and engineers at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), who are trying to retain cautious optimism while also reminding anyone with ears that the chances for a successful first launch are less than 50 percent.
"I would say that the chance of failure in the first attempt exceeds 70 percent, based on the previous experience of other countries,'' said Kim Jae-won, an official of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology's big science support bureau.
If the first launch fails, it will take more than a year to prepare for a second try, said Kim, and the process of analyzing the problems and making adjustments would provide the real test for local scientists.
"We are afraid of setting hopes too high, as the disappointment could only be bigger if the first launch fails. Patience is required for scientific progress and the last thing we want is a buzz kill,'' he said.
If the idea was to keep expectations at bay, the country's space authorities are doing a poor job. Areas around the Goheung spaceport are already buzzing with anticipation, as people continue to debate where would be the best spot to watch the rocket launch, which will be closed to the public due to safety reasons.
KARI officials say that areas within a 15 to 20 kilometer radius of the launching pad will be ideal to witness the rocket's red glare, and the nearby islands of Nangdo, Sado, Jedo, Baekyado, Geumodo and Mt. Bonghwa are considered among the best viewing points.
Local authorities are determined to cash in on the tourism opportunity, recruiting passenger ships and fishing boats that will carry tourists out to sea to witness the launch, while also providing a variety of travel packages to lure more visitors.
And last week's delivery of the lower assembly of the KSLV-1, developed by Russia's Khrunichev State Space Science and Production Center and containing the liquid-fueled propulsion system of the two-stage rocket, was covered by the local media like a rock star's arrival.
After first arriving at the Gimhae International Airport in Busan from Russia, the rocket was moved to Busan harbor and then to Goheung by sea in a high-tech transport mission that had local authorities shredding their fingernails in apprehension.
"We expect that a lot of boats to gather on the waters around the Naro Space Center and authorities are planning a tight control around the area with the help of the Navy and Yeosu Coast Guard,'' said a KARI official.
Since starting construction in December of 2000, the country has spent more than 312.4 billion won (about $243 million) to complete the Naro Space Center, which makes Korea the 13th nation in the world to have its own spaceport.
The 5.11 million-square-meter space center is built around a launch complex that includes the launch pad and erector, a launch control center, a ground-based observation center, a tracking radar, an electro optical tracking system and other high-tech equipment.
Of the impressive array of facilities and machinery at the Naro, the flight termination system (FTS) facility is the one piece of state-of-the-art equipment that KARI officials are reluctant to talk about.
The 33.5-meter, 140-ton KSLV-1 will carry an experimental satellite, a 100-kilogram device named "Science and Technology Satellite No. 2,'' jointly designed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and and the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST).
The Khrunichev Center, which is providing the technology for the Korean space project, developed the 25.8-meter long lower assembly. KARI designed the solid-fuel upper part of the rocket, which will seat the satellite.
KARI hopes that the experience with KSLV-1, which has a thrust of 170 tons, will accelerate its efforts to develop a more advanced KSLV-II with its own technology.
The Science Ministry last week confirmed that the launch date has been set for July 30, although it could be delayed up to Aug. 6 considering variables such as weather conditions.
The time of the launch is set for 4:40 p.m., with a two-hour window for delay, considering the condition for an eclipse, or the satellite being buried under the earth's shadow.
The country spent more than 502.4 billion won (about $391) on developing KSLV-1, of which about $198 will go to the Russians who are contracted for at least two launches.
If the first launch is successful, another rocket will be launched from Naro after a period of nine months or more. The Russians will participate in a third launch if the first two attempts fail.
Korean Air, the country's largest airline, handled the assembling of the rocket, while Hyundai Heavy Industries, working on a blueprint provided by the Khrunichev Center, recently completed the construction of the Naro spaceport.
"Our launch system passed the 358 categories on the functionality test with flying colors, and we think that our experience of building this facility will provide the base to design another spaceport with our own technology,'' said Muin Kyung-ju, the director of the Naro Space Center.
"We are already getting more respect, being offered a spot in a consortium to build a new launching pad at Kazakhstan's Baikonur spaceport.''
Scenario for July 30
KARI engineers and their Russian colleagues are about to undergo a process to connect the lower assembly of the KSLV-1 rocket to the upper part. They will then install the satellite into the rocket.
The rocket will then be moved to the launching pad. On the morning of the launch, the rocket will be installed on the stationary erector, which will then rotate 90 degrees and reach vertical position.
After a final checkup by engineers, the lower assembly of the rocket will be injected with liquid oxygen and kerosene. The launch will be guided by the launch control and observation center that is about 2 kilometers away from the launch pad.
After launch, the rocket will ascend vertically for 25 seconds, enough time to reach 900 meters above ground, then rotate 10 degrees east and head toward the direction of Okinawa. The rocket will be 290 kilometers above ground when it passes the Japanese island chain, thus avoiding Japan's aerial domain.
After 225 seconds from the launch, the spacecraft's nose fairing, which is used to strap and protect the satellite, will be removed from the upper part of the rocket.
The liquid fuel of the lower assembly will be consumed after 238 seconds. The lower assembly will then be separated from the upper part of the rocket and fall to sea, while a "kick motor'' in the upper engine will be lighted to position the satellite in the planned direction.
The solid fuel of the upper engine will be exhausted after 540 seconds (9 minutes) and separate from the satellite, which is about 306 kilometers above ground at that point. The satellite will then be pushed into the low earth orbit.
If successfully launched, the satellite, which has a two-year lifespan, will use its microwave radiometer to scan the intensity of the earth's radiant energy and also be used to measure satellite orbits.