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South Korea Debuts New Small Launch Vehicle

South Korea’s newest launch system takes flight from its seagoing launch platform off the coast of Jeju, South Korea.
Credit: Yonhap News

South Korea has successfully launched a new small launch vehicle from a floating platform near Jeju, South Korea on December 4th, 2023. The Hanhwa Defense-built launch vehicle known only as “TLV” placed a small satellite into a 650 kilometer orbit around the Earth, as part of an orbital flight test of their new rapid response system.

Little has been made public about this system or this test flight prior to launch, which had been hinted at through a series of airspace notices over the past several weeks. It had been rumored that a private Japanese company had filed for the rumored airspace closure, as reported on the website formerly known as Twitter by Asia-region spaceflight analyst Cosmic Penguin

The vehicle flew in a three stage configuration, with two solid stages and a trim stage for final orbital adjustments, which is also planned to fly on a more capable four stage configuration at a later date. Original plans called for a dummy stage to act as the payload, with the manufacturer opting to fly their own synthetic aperture radar satellite known as S-STEP as a stand-in to demonstrate the vehicle’s capability. 

TLV lifts off, carrying the S-STEP payload onboard for Hanhwa Defense.
Credit: Bemil

Post launch, the Ministry of Defense for the Republic of Korea confirmed that TLV’s flight had been successful, and the United States Space Force’s 18th Space Defense Squadron had cataloged the payload and trim stage in orbit. The Ministry of Defense went on to explain in a tweet that this flight was part of a greater effort to field a rapid response launch vehicle, following a trend seen around the world. The rise in potential use of anti-satellite weaponry from nations across the globe has seen the global defense industry push for launch vehicles that can be ready quickly and deployed from anywhere.

In September, Firefly Aerospace demonstrated a “rapid call-up” mission profile with VICTUS NOX for the United States Space Force with their Alpha launch vehicle. This mission profile leveraged the United States’ diverse commercial industry to demonstrate the same kind of rapid response profile as South Korea’s TLV. Rapid call-up capability is paramount for South Korea, which faces heightened geopolitical pressure from North Korea as they ramp up weapons testing and deploy new spy satellites. 

South Korea’s aerospace sector has grown rapidly in the past 5 years, with the rising aerospace power contributing to the Artemis program in the form of the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, also known as Danuri, and fielding their domestically developed Nuri launch vehicle. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute is also actively developing their own domestic satellite navigation system, the Korea Positioning System, which it hopes to have operational by 2030. With the launch of TLV, South Korea’s status as a global and responsive space power continues to rise and unlock new potential for the peninsula. 

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