South Korea's second attempt to get a home-manufactured rocket into orbit has ended in fiery disaster just three minutes into flight. It's a shame for the budding space nation—but all the more indicative that SpaceX's Falcon 9 is a truly impressive piece of technology.
Earlier this morning South Korea's Naro-1 rocket sprightly hopped off its launch pad in Goheung. All seemed to be going well at first. After 137 seconds, the rocket had reached 70 kilometers. And then, according to Science and Technology Minister Ahn Byong-Man, ground control suffered a loss of contact with the vehicle. Probably at the exact moment the "vehicle exploded in flight"?
This was the second attempt at firing a rocket made in Korea into space with a mission to deliver a satellite into orbit: The first Naro-1 launch in August failed at the last minute when its aerodynamic nose cone failed to separate in space, trapping the satellite inside.
Naro-1 has a first stage that's built in Russia using that nation's many decades of expertise, but the second stage and its satellite payload is designed and manufactured in South Korea. Russian and Korean teams are currently assessing what happened, and may end up looking for the wreckage in the ocean some 100km off the coast of the country. The primary suspect seems to be the Russian-built first stage. (Barring a system-wide failing, it's unlikely that the leaking fire extinguisher gear that caused a one-day launch delay on Wednesday is at fault.)
A technological tragedy, for sure. But Naro-1's failure highlights the astonishing success of the recent Falcon 9 launch by U.S. company SpaceX. This two-stage rocket, which at 333,000 kilos is more than twice as heavy as the Naro-1, is an entirely privately designed and built endeavor. It successfully launched last Friday, popping a dummy "test" payload into almost exactly the predicted orbit window.
(We've been in touch with SpaceX, and they've shared a little extra data on the only issues that appeared to have affected the launch. The second stage suffered an uncommanded roll maneuver during the later moments of its flight, and the vehicles vectoring rockets didn't or couldn't correct the problem. SpaceX notes that this was indeed a problem, that they're "still looking into" but they remark that the roll had no effect on the orbit insertion vector—the rocket still slipped into almost exactly the right spot in the sky. Recovery of the vehicle's first stage was actually always going to be a bonus, so losing it wasn't a problem as it "was never part of our mission objectives this time around." They did recover telemetry data from the stage, but haven't processed it yet.)
SpaceX is now extremely confident about the next couple of Falcon 9 flights.
The next one is due "late summer," and will be the first full demo of an ISS resupply mission, operating under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. For that flight, a dummy Dragon space module will fly right by the ISS and then back into the atmosphere.
During a second test flight, the Dragon module will finally be captured by the ISS arm and mated to the station.