Asia news: 60th IAC 2009

E&T reports from the 60th International Astronautical Congress held in Korea.

Korea aims for the Moon

By Mark Williamson

South Korea wants to play a part in current international efforts to explore the Moon. Speaking to around 3,000 delegates from some 70 countries at the opening ceremony of the International Astronautical Congress, President Lee Myung-bak said: "Many countries have cooperated to successfully carry out large-scale space projects such as the lunar exploration programme, and Korea hopes to join such efforts".

It would be premature to expect Korea to stage its own lunar mission in the near term, but the government's commitment to space technology development was clear from Lee's presence, sandwiched as it was between a trilateral summit in Beijing with China's premier and Japan's Prime Minister, and a tour to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand the following week. "Korea will continue to have the passion and the commitment to contribute to space developments," Lee confirmed. His speech and a package of interviews with conference delegates continued to be screened on local TV beyond the end of the Congress.

The accompanying exhibition and the large contingent of Korean space professionals at the conference supported Lee's assertion that his country intends to take an active part in the field. Apart from procuring foreign commercial communications satellites, Korea has developed its own space science, meteorological and Earth imaging spacecraft, and sent its first astronaut, Soyeon Yi, to the International Space Station in 2008.

The KSLV-1, Korea's first rocket capable of delivering its own satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO), was launched on 25 August 2009, but half of the payload fairing failed to separate and the satellite did not reach orbit. President Lee was predictably upbeat regarding his nation's attempt to join what is still a fairly exclusive club. "More than 90 per cent" of Korea's population watched the launch on TV, he said, adding: "Some may say it was a failure, but we believe it was a success." Considering that many nations' inaugural launches have failed much earlier in the launch sequence than this, Lee's assessment is fair.

While the KSLV-1 is based largely on Russian technology, the Korea Times reported last month that US$1.3bn had already been allocated for the development of an entirely indigenous launch vehicle capable of placing a 1.5t payload in LEO. According to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), which is based in Daejeon, its KSLV-2 will "establish the foundation to take part in the international space launch service market".

Speaking at a well-attended plenary session on human lunar exploration, KARI president Lee Joo-jin explained that by adding a solid-propellant upper stage to the KSLV-2, the vehicle would be able to deliver a payload to lunar orbit by 2020. "We are proposing a lunar orbiter and lander - a two spacecraft mission - to the government", he said, adding that a "robotic lunar sample return" mission was tentatively planned for around 2025.

New measures needed to manage orbital junk

An international panel of experts told an IAC plenary audience that the sustainability of commercial and other applications in Earth orbit is at risk as a result of a burgeoning debris population. Since the beginning of the Space Age in 1957, there have been more than 200 satellite explosions and collisions, said NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris Nicholas Johnson, and of the 20,000-odd objects tracked by radars, "25 per cent are greater than 10cm in diameter".

While recognising the benefits of current debris mitigation measures, Dr K Kasturirangan, Indian parliamentarian and former chairman of the national space agency ISRO, argued that debris control measures should be made obligatory. It is now time to establish an international forum (possibly under the auspices of the UN) to coordinate the issues, he added.

Kai-Uwe Schrogl, secretary-general of the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), referred delegates to a recent workshop which concluded that "space should be looked at as a traffic system".

A conference later this year, co-organised by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will be the first to consider the practicalities of removing manmade debris from Earth orbit, but the challenges involved are, to say the least, non-trivial.

Mini-sat firm hails success of double launch

July 2009 was a busy month for Daejeon-based small-satellite manufacturer Satrec Initiative (SI), marking the launches of its first two commercial Earth-imaging satellites. Malaysia's RazakSAT was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 1 from Kwajalein Island on 14 July and DubaiSat-1 by a Russian Dnepr from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on 29 July.

Sungdong Park, SI's president and CEO, is modest about SI's achievement in acquiring international contracts in the face of more experienced foreign competition. "We had a relationship with Malaysia… and they liked Satrec," said Park, adding: "Dubai received proposals from many countries, but they contacted the Malaysians who gave us a good reference."

SI was formed in 1999 by a group of engineers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology as a university spin-out. Working with its Malaysian space agency partner ATSB, Satrec developed the SI-200 mini-satellite platform architecture, which was later applied to the DubaiSat mission.

According to Park, the Dubai authorities considered a satellite "the best way to make Dubai famous" and its first image was of the arguably-already-famous Palm Jebel Ali.

Park is proud of the fact that SI has won repeat business in the form of equipment for Turkey's Gokturk-2 satellite.

In 2005, Korea became the first country in the region to enact a space law "to promote the space industry". Park recognises that Korean domestic programmes are well-supported by the government and believes that SI has "a good chance" of being chosen as contractor for future domestic satellites.

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