South Korea's first launch of its new rocket, dubbed Nuri, seemed to go smoothly after liftoff Thursday (Oct. 21), but engineers have determined that its mock payload did not reach the proper orbit for unknown reasons.
The Nuri rocket lifted off about an hour behind schedule from the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province at 4 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT, 5 p.m. local time). The country has been developing its second rocket design, also known as Korean Space Launch Vehicle-II, for more than a decade. South Korea's previous rocket, Naro, made its first successful launch in 2013 on the third attempt. Naro carried a 220-pound (100 kilograms) satellite on its milestone launch; Nuri's mock satellite for this launch weighed 1.5 tons (1.4 metric tons).
"The Nuri has failed to complete its mission," Moon Jae-in, South Korea's president, said in a post-flight address as reported by English news site The Korea Herald. "Putting a payload into a targeted orbit remains unsolved, but sending the rocket into a 700-kilometer [430 miles] orbit itself is a great achievement."
He noted that all three stages of the rocket worked properly and said that the nation's space agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), is looking into why the mock satellite didn't retain its orbit after deployment, according to the Yonhap News Agency, another local news site. A Korean-language statement from KARI suggests that the rocket's third stage may have shut down prematurely.
When Nuri operates properly, it will become South Korea's first rocket capable of lifting 1 ton into Earth orbit, a feat that only six countries have accomplished entirely domestically, according to Yonhap: Russia, the U.S., France, China, Japan and India.
Even before agency personnel realized that Thursday's flight had failed at the last step, KARI was planning additional and more ambitious launches, with Nuri's next blastoff scheduled for May 19, 2022, according to an agency statement published in September. That flight will target the same altitude and carry a real payload, the statement notes.
During his speech after today's failure, Moon emphasized that South Korea is aiming to land a spacecraft on the moon by 2030, Yonhap reported, with Nuri flying at least four more times before 2027.
"Nuri is our country's own space launch vehicle that has been developed through the blood, sweat, and tears of many researchers and industrial parties since 2010, and I believe its launch this October will mark a milestone in the history of our space development," Lim Hyesook, minister of science and information and communication technology, said in the September KARI statement.
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.