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SpaceX carries South Korea’s first spy satellite to orbit

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Crew Dragon capsule lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on May 30, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

One of Elon Musk’s rockets carried a South Korean spy satellite into orbit as the rivalry between the two Koreas expands beyond Earth.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Seoul’s first domestically made reconnaissance satellite launched from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 10:19 a.m. PST Friday, according to South Korea’s defense ministry. The satellite entered into orbit after successfully separating from the rocket 14 minutes after launch and also made its first communication with a ground station, the ministry said in a statement.

The launch comes on the heels of North Korea placing its first spy satellite into orbit last month, allowing Kim Jong Un’s regime to keep an eye on U.S. troop movements in the region.

South Korea has relied on the U.S. for space-based intelligence but is now seeking to supplement that by stepping up its own reconnaissance capabilities with a series of launches aimed at putting five spy satellites in orbit by 2025.

“With this successful launch, South Korean military has secured an independent space surveillance and reconnaissance capability,” South Korea said.

“The U.S. does not share all the satellite images Koreans want,” said Sejin Kwon, a professor of aerospace engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

The spy probes are part of a broader effort to develop South Korea’s space program, including the launch in May of a Nuri rocket that transported eight satellites into orbit.

With the spy satellite launches, the two Koreas join a growing list of countries seeking to expand their data collection in space.

Japan is looking to increase its network of information-gathering satellites from five to nine over the next few years to better keep an eye on its nuclear-armed neighbors, the Cabinet Secretariat has said. The country launched its latest reconnaissance satellite in January.

An Indian rocket in July launched an Israeli-made Earth observation satellite for Singaporean users, including the country’s Defence Science and Technology Agency, Israel Aerospace Industries said in a statement. IAI on Oct. 2 announced an agreement to sell two satellites to Azerbaijan’s space agency.

North Korea’s spy satellite may improve Pyongyang’s ability to target missiles designed to deliver nuclear strikes in South Korea and Japan.

The newly launched South Korean satellite is expected to be far more capable than the North Korean probe, which likely has a rudimentary optical system that experts believe offers images with lower resolution than those from commercial satellites.

Seoul’s satellite has a telescope with electro-optical/infrared sensors, according to a spokesperson for the South Korean Defense Acquisition Program. The spacecraft is capable of identifying objects as small as 30 centimeters (12 inches), with a resolution capacity about 100 times better than what North Korea has, the DongA Ilbo newspaper reported in late November.

The project could bolster South Korea’s ability to gather intelligence independently, acting as a hedge against political changes in the U.S. that could impact information sharing.

Former President Donald Trump, who is seeking a return to the White House, during his tenure threatened to withdraw U.S. troops stationed in the country.

South Korea sees the deployment of its spy satellites as part of a security triad with the U.S. and Japan to launch preemptive strikes, shoot down missiles in flight and launch its own strikes to knock out North Korea’s military and command assets.


© 2023 Bloomberg L.P

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