Expanding space club

South Korea has become the latest aspirant to the space club. On August 25, the country made the first attempt to use its own rocket for putting a satellite into orbit. The Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1), also known as Naro-1, came close to achieving that objective. The two-stage launcher carried the 100-kg Science and Technology Satellite-2 to a height over 300 km. But the mission failed after the heat shield, which protects the satellite during the rocket’s rapid ascent, did not separate and fall away as planned. South Korea, which has already launched nearly a dozen satellites on foreign rockets, announced in 2002 its plans to create a domestic launch capability. After encountering problems with developing a suitable liquid propellant engine for the rocket, the country turned to Russia for help. The KSLV-1’s big first stage, which uses a powerful engine running on liquid oxygen and kerosene, is supplied by Russia. The domestically made second stage uses solid propellants. South Korea’s effort at launching a satellite comes just four months after neighbouring North Korea failed to do so at its third attempt. This year’s launch of North Korea’s Unha-2 too appears to have come close to success, with two of the rocket’s three stages functioning properly. If, as seems probable, the two Koreas sort out the problems with their launchers, they will join China, Japan, and India as Asian countries capable of independently accessing space. South Korea has even announced plans to send a probe to the Moon in the coming years.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, the United States, the only country whose astronauts have walked on the Moon, seems uncertain about the course its manned space programme should take. In 2004, President George W. Bush announced his vision of humans returning to the Moon by 2020 and then going on to Mars. As part of this ambitious programme, the U.S. space agency NASA plans to complete the International Space Station and retire the Space Shuttle by the end of next year or in early 2011. It will then concentrate on a new generation of launch vehicles and spacecraft capable of carrying humans beyond Earth orbit. But a committee appointed by the space agency at the urging of the Obama administration to review the human spaceflight programme, is questioning the feasibility of such grandiose plans. Moon landings appear to be out of the question. Increasingly, economic power and, along with it, the appetite to take on the challenges of space seem to be shifting to Asia.

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