Korea goes to the moon:
Hanwha to lead Korea’s next-generation space rocket project

Earth illuminated by the rising sun as seen from outer space.
May 14, 2024 (KST)

The space industry has the potential to become a $1.8 trillion opportunity for global economic growth by 2035, according to a report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF). This figure includes both “backbone” applications such as satellites, launchers, and services like GPS as well as “reach” applications — those for which space technology, such as satellite signals, helps to generate revenues across various industries including ride sharing and more. The surge is projected to be largely built upon space-based, space-enabled technologies such as communications, navigation, and Earth observation, and is expected to contribute to disaster warnings, climate monitoring, and improved humanitarian response efforts, among other societal benefits.

As the space economy takes off over the next decade, and space-based infrastructure around Earth expands, economic activity is expected to extend into space as well, starting with the moon. This is because the moon, once thought to be a barren rock, may hold a treasure trove of untapped resources. Geological surveys show that the moon contains three crucial elements: rare earth metals, including gold and platinum, used in modern electronics; helium-3, a potential fuel for nuclear fusion; and water, which can be converted into rocket fuel. The presence of water is especially significant as it means spacecraft can be refueled in lunar orbit or at lunar bases, making space travel more cost-effective. Turning the moon into a refueling station would make it a vital space hub between Earth and other planets, with the moon serving as a launchpad for space exploration. These factors explain the “lunar gold rush,” and the renewed interest in landing astronauts on the moon.

What’s noteworthy about lunar exploration in the 21st century is that space endeavors are no longer driven solely by government interests, as they were in the past. The new space era has seen accelerating market activity, whereby the launches of missions — including lunar landings — are carried out by governments and commercial companies. Given that space exploration requires significant financial investment in research and development (R&D) and infrastructure, as well as prowess in aerospace engineering and political will, the synergy between public and private sectors will be crucial to innovation and growth as the space economy gathers pace — on Earth, the moon, and beyond — over the next decade.

The global space economy is expected to reach USD 1.8 trillion by 2035.

New global race to the moon

The world’s leading powers and their private sectors have already begun taking steps to send spacecraft to the moon. In February of this year, a lunar lander built by Houston-based space exploration company Intuitive Machines made headlines when it achieved a moon landing. It was the first commercial landing in American history, and the first by a U.S.-built spacecraft in more than 50 years. The U.S. aims to put astronauts back on the lunar surface by 2026 as part of a renewed commitment to crewed missions, aided by private sector players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. These two companies have been spearheading the development of reusable rockets that will reduce costs and increase accessibility to space.

China, another superpower, has been nurturing a space ecosystem with its private sector, focusing on satellite manufacturing and launch services, and has plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2030. At the same time, Japan, home to several private-sector space startups, became the fifth country in the world to achieve a soft touchdown on the moon, after the U.S., the former Soviet Union, China, and India. In Korea, private sector players have been helping to broaden and bolster the space economy. Their R&D capabilities have in turn propelled the country’s space program, bringing a moon landing into view.

To achieve this goal, Korea has finalized a contract with Hanwha Aerospace, Korea’s leading private aerospace company, to lead the country’s next-generation space launch vehicle project. This means Hanwha will work with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), Korea’s national space agency, to design, manufacture, and operate the rocket. Having successfully developed and launched two Korea Space Launch Vehicles (KSLVs) to date — the Naro-1 (KSLV-I) and Nuri (KSLV-II) rockets — Korea now aims to develop a more powerful rocket, officially named “KSLV-III.” By collaborating with Hanwha, the company that put Nuri into orbit, Korea aims to launch KSLV-III with a lunar lander on board by 2032.

 Korea’s Nuri rocket successfully put commercial-grade satellites into orbit in 2022.

Korea’s Nuri rocket successfully put commercial-grade satellites into orbit in 2023

Hanwha leads Korea’s next-generation space rocket project

Korea’s goal of landing on the moon is part of its broader goal of continuing to advance space technology and exploration. The country signed NASA’s Artemis Accords in May 2021 — principles designed to bring together nations with a common vision for peaceful, sustainable, and transparent cooperation in space. A collaboration between more than 30 countries, this project aims to build a new space station on the moon and place astronauts on the lunar surface to develop an ongoing presence there. By developing KSLV-III, Hanwha and Korea will make strides toward scientific discovery and technological advancement that could also support NASA’s efforts to establish the first long-term presence on the moon.

When Nuri successfully put commercial-grade satellites into orbit in 2023, Korea became the seventh nation to place a satellite weighing 1 metric ton into orbit with domestically developed rockets. By taking the next step of successfully launching a lunar lander so that it can reach the moon, Korea and Hanwha will further the global space industry.

With decades of experience in the space industry, Hanwha has been heavily involved in developing diverse space-based technologies, including space launch vehicles, satellites and antennas, satellite-based communications, and Earth orbit observation systems. The latest venture will be a much more complex mission requiring extensive coordination between Hanwha and KARI, and among Hanwha’s affiliates with expertise in solid-fuel rockets, liquid-fuel engines, Earth observation satellites, and payloads. The project will also provide the momentum for technological advancement and market opportunity.

While the Nuri spacecraft proved Korea’s ability to successfully place a satellite weighing 1 metric ton or higher into orbit in 2022 and 2023, the upcoming rocket will need to vastly improve its payload capacity and thrust to reach the moon. The KSLV-III project will leverage Hanwha’s strong R&D foundation and aerospace value chain to this end.

Hanwha’s space launch vehicle factory at the Yulchon Industrial Complex in South Jeolla Province, Korea.

Hanwha’s Space Hub launch vehicle assembly site at the Yulchon Industrial Complex in South Jeolla Province, Korea

To the moon and beyond

Hanwha’s strong R&D has been the driver behind its success in the Korean space economy thus far. The company has invested heavily in the aerospace industry with a focus on technological innovation and value chain creation. The Hanwha Aerospace Daejeon R&D campus is the country’s only R&D center that can plan and test entire sections of space launch vehicles and has played a pivotal role in advancing Korea’s capabilities in the industry. Hanwha participated in the development of liquid engines for the KSLV series, as well as core components including fuel feeding systems, turbo pumps and valves, and thrust vector control (TVC) systems. For Nuri, the company was involved in the creation of the vessel, assembling its liquid-fuel rocket engine at its testing facilities.

For KSLV-III, rocket propulsion technology — a cornerstone of space exploration — will be a critical factor as the performance of the engine influences the velocity, acceleration, and payload capacity of the rocket, all of which play significant roles in determining its range and capabilities. For comparison, the Nuri rocket produced 300 tons of thrust, the force needed to overcome gravity, using four 75-ton engines built by Hanwha during launch. To build the next-generation rocket, the Hanwha team will need to develop a multistage rocket with five 100-ton staged combustion cycle liquid engines in the first stage and two 10-ton liquid engines in the second stage, totaling three times the power of Nuri by payload capacity. The key to producing this engine will be clustering technology, a much more advanced and technically difficult feat. Powered by these complex technologies, the aim is to have KSLV-III operate more efficiently and stably compared to previous models.

Hanwha Chairman Seung-youn Kim poses with employees at the Hanwha Aerospace Daejeon R&D campus in 2024.

Hanwha Chairman Seung-youn Kim and Vice Chairman Dong Kwan (DK) Kim pose with employees at Hanwha Aerospace Daejeon R&D campus during a recent a visit to encourage the researchers who will lead the next-generation rocket project

That’s not the only factor that will differentiate KSLV-III from its predecessors. The new rocket will consist of two stages in total, unlike Nuri, which consisted of three stages. Having fewer stages means the KSLV-III will be able to increase efficiency, lower manufacturing costs, and shorten the production schedule thanks to the reduced number of components and variables. Additionally, the engine, thrust control, and re-ignition system will be developed using technology for reusable rockets. Hanwha is working separately on a government-issued project for the development of a reusable rocket, and these two projects will ultimately come together to create a large-scale reusable rocket.

By lowering the cost of rocket launches and making space exploration more reliable and efficient, space-enabled sectors will be fully activated and launch a commercial space age ripe with opportunity.

Korea plans to send a rocket to the moon by 2032 in collaboration with Hanwha.

The first KSLV-III launch is targeted for 2030, with a lunar probe on board, and the second for 2032, with a lunar lander that will be powered by Hanwha-developed thruster technology. Hanwha previously developed the thruster for Korea’s first lunar orbiter Danuri, which has been in orbit since 2022, and is currently working with KARI on a bipropellant thruster for the lunar lander that will be aboard KSLV-III, a component that will play a key role in ensuring a successful landing. In the coming years, Hanwha will work closely with KARI, investing in R&D programs to continue to develop aerospace innovations and drive space exploration forward, alongside other space race contenders in North America, Europe, and Asia.

As the world prepares for the economic, humanitarian, and geopolitical dimensions of the coming era, both public and private sectors will need to lay a solid foundation to ensure harmonious growth. Hanwha will continue to unlock long-term opportunities within the global space industry as the world embraces a space economy brimming with collaborative value creation.

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