South Korea was set to launch its first commercial-grade satellite Wednesday as rival North Korea pushed plans forward to place its first military spy satellite into orbit.The South Korean satellite will be launched by a domestically made rocket under the country’s space development program. Seoul officials say its launch has no military purpose, but many experts say it will eventually help South Korea acquire technologies and knowhow required to operate military surveillance satellites and build more powerful missiles.
The Nuri space launch vehicle was scheduled to lift off early Wednesday evening from a launch facility on a southern South Korean island, if no unexpected weather or other problems occur at the last minute, according to the Science Ministry.
Aboard the rocket are the main satellite, called “Next Generation Small Satellite 2,” and seven other smaller, cube-shaped satellites. The main one is tasked with verifying imaging radar technology and observing cosmic radiation in near-Earth orbit, a ministry statement said. Wednesday’s launch is the third of its kind involving Nuri, South Korea’s first homegrown rocket.
In its first launch in 2021, the rocket’s dummy payload reached the desired altitude but failed to enter orbit. In its second attempt last year, South Korea successfully put what it called a “performance verification satellite” into orbit in a launch mainly designed to examine the Nuri rocket. South Korea became the world’s 10th nation to send a satellite into space with its own technology. The latest launch comes amid heightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
On May 16, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reviewed a finished military spy satellite at the country’s aerospace center and approved an unspecified future action plan on its launch. During the visit, Kim cited the strategic significance of a spy satellite while vowing to bolster the country’s defense as “U.S. imperialists and (South) Korean puppet villains escalate their confrontational moves,” according to state media.
Some experts say the North Korean spy satellite disclosed in its state media doesn’t appear to be sophisticated enough to produce high-resolution imagery that can meaningfully boost the country’s surveillance capacities.
But Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, said the North Korean satellite is still likely be capable of monitoring the deployment of incoming U.S. strategic assets like an aircraft carrier and the movements of South Korean warships and fighter jets.
“It would be much better to have such a satellite than not having one,” Lee said.
After its first spy satellite launch, Lee predicted North Korea will try to send several more satellites into space, likely more advanced ones. Lee said the North’s first spy satellite launch could happen in June. Other experts say the launch will more likely happen in the latter half of this year. Unlike South Korean and other countries’ satellite launches, North Korea’s satellite liftoff would be a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which ban the country from engaging in any form of ballistic launches.