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NASA selects two robotic missions to Venus for launch in late 2020s



The northern hemisphere is displayed in this global view of the surface of Venus as seen by NASA Magellan spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA has selected two robotic missions for launch to Venus around 2029, the U.S. space agency’s first spacecraft in more than 30 years dedicated to exploring the hellishly hot second planet from the sun.

The two winning proposals — named DAVINCI+ and VERITAS — won a competition run by NASA to select the next projects for development under the agency’s Discovery program, a line of cost-capped planetary science missions.

“Congratulations to the teams behind NASA’s two planetary science missions: VERITAS — “truth” — and DAVINCI+,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in the June 2 announcement. “These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface. They will offer the entire science community the chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years.”

NASA’s last mission devoted to observing Venus was Magellan, which launched on a space shuttle in 1989 and arrived in orbit around the planet in 1990. Megallan mapped Venus’s surface using radar waves, which can pierce the planet’s thick clouds, to reveal the planet’s mountains and topography.

Since Magellan, several NASA spacecraft has sailed by Venus on the way to other planetary destinations, and Europe and Japan have sent orbiters to Venus.

Nelson said further study of Venus, sometimes called Earth’s twin, will help scientists understand how Earth and Venus diverged in their evolution throughout the solar system’s 4.5-billion-year history.

“In our solar system, of the rocky planets, there’s Mercury, the closest to the sun. It has no atmosphere,” Nelson said. “Then there’s Venus with an incredibly dense atmosphere, then there’s Earth with a habitable atmosphere, and then there’s Mars with an atmosphere that is just 1% of Earth’s. We hope the missions will further our understanding of how Earth evolved, and why it’s currently habitable when others in our solar system are not.”

Using a more sensitive radar instrument, VERITAS will update the topographic maps created by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft in the early 1990s, potentially revealing whether geologic processes such as volcanoes are currently active on the planet.

DAVINCI+ will send a small probe, measuring roughly 3 feet (1 meter) across, into the thick atmosphere of Venus. The instrumented craft will plunge into Venus’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, deploy a parachute, and descend through cloud layers made of sulfuric acid before eventually landing on the surface.

“We’re revving up our planetary science program with intense exploration of a world that NASA hasn’t visited in over 30 years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “Using cutting-edge technologies that NASA has developed and refined over many years of missions and technology programs, we’re ushering in a new decade of Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet can become a hothouse.

“Our goals are profound,” Zurbuchen said in a statement. “It is not just understanding the evolution of planets and habitability in our own solar system, but extending beyond these boundaries to exoplanets, an exciting and emerging area of research for NASA.”

VERITAS stands for the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission. The development of VERITAS will be led at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The DAVINCI+ mission, which stands for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging – Plus, will be managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

NASA said the missions will launch in the 2028-2030 timeframe. Each mission will get approximately $500 million for development, excluding launch costs and international contributions.

In interviews with Spaceflight Now, the lead scientists for the VERITAS and DAVINCI+ missions said NASA has directed the teams to target launches in 2029, a schedule driven by budget availability.

“We’ve waited a long time for a U.S. mission to go back through the atmosphere of Venus, and we’re delighted to be that mission,” said Jim Garvin, chief scientist at Goddard and principal investigator for the DAVINCI+ mission. “So thanks to all fo the women and men that got us here. We can’t wait to go.”

“We’re just so thrilled to have this opportunity to go to Venus,” said Sue Smrekar, principal investigator for the VERITAS mission at JPL. “For me, it’s a lifelong dream. For many, it’s been a labor of love for a year, five years, 10 years. Many have been working on it for a long time.”

NASA selected the VERITAS and DAVINCI+ missions over two other finalists.

One of the candidates, the Io Volcano Observer, would have sent a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and pass near the moon Io, the most volcanically active body in the solar system. The Trident mission proposal would have dispatched a probe to fly by Triton, the largest moon of Neptune, which harbors geyser-like plumes erupting from its icy surface.

But Venus, which NASA has bypassed in several recent mission selections, won support this time.

Data from DAVINCI+ will help scientists understand how the atmosphere of Venus formed and evolved, and help determine whether the planet — about the same size as Earth — ever had an ocean.

“The science is simple,” Garvin told Spaceflight Now. “Venus has a massive atmosphere. It’s layered, or stratified, and it records the history of billions of years of planetary evolution, which for Venus is still a mystery. It’s an enigmatic rocky planet with a big atmosphere. We think Venus likely harbored global oceans for billions of years. That’s the best modeling that we can get from what little we know.”

While Earth and Venus may have been similar billions of years ago, Venus’s super-dense atmosphere is now 90 times thicker than Earth’s. The sweltering blanket of carbon dioxide turns up the temperature at the surface to 900 degrees Fahrenheit (480 degrees Celsius).

“So what happened? What happened to the climate change? How does that couple through the crust and rocks? What does that do the clouds, which are thick and fascinating, and how does that work?” Garvin said.

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s DAVINCI+ mission at Venus, showing the atmospheric entry probe descending through Venus’s clouds to the surface. Credit: NASA/GSFC visualization and CI Labs Michael Lentz and colleagues

“We’re going to measure the history of water, other critical chemistries of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, their cycles, from the top of the atmosphere to the surface,” Garvin said. “We’re going re-measure the critical state of the lower atmosphere, temperature and pressure. It’s super critical, so it’s not a true gas, or an ideal gas. We’ll measure that.”

DAVINCI+ was designed and proposed before scientists announced last year evidence of phosphine gas in the clouds of Venus, an indicator of possible life. Phosphine, made by combining a phosphorus atom with three hydrogen atoms, is only generated on Earth from microbes and industrial activity.

But some researchers have voiced doubts about the phosphine discovery. DAVINCI+ will be outfitted to make direct measurements of phosphine, if it is there.

The descent probe will be a titanium sphere housing a mass spectrometer and a tunable laser spectrometer to measure the composition of the atmosphere from top to bottom. The craft will also have instruments to measure pressures, temperatures, winds, and accelerations during descent, and a near-infrared camera system peering out the bottom of the probe will take pictures of the surface of Venus.

“Below the clouds, we’ll use a very high resolution new kind of descent imaging system that will not only take pictures but it will make images from which we can infer composition and topography,” Garvin said. “So we’re going to that all the way down from something like 90,000 feet (27.4 kilometers) to the surface, ever getting closer, and finally we’ll be taking images with resolution like if you were flying a drone over your backyard.”

The probe will be suspended under a parachute as it falls through Venus’s atmosphere. The entire descent will take about an hour, targeting an area of Venus called Alpha Regio, a mountainous region first discovered in the 1960s using Earth-based radar observations.

“We’re going to go into those mountains,” Garvin said. “They’ve never been seen at human scales. We’ll be seeing them, measuring them, and measuring the chemistry of the atmosphere above them. So all that will give us a storybook, an evolutionary history of Venus, and we’ll apply that forward across the solar system, but also to exoplanets (planets around other stars) we’ll be able to measure with the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The last U.S.-led mission to send a probe into the atmosphere of Venus was Pioneer Venus in 1978. The Soviet Union’s Vega missions were the last to plunge deep into Venus’s atmosphere in 1985.

The descent probe itself will be built in-house at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, while Lockheed Martin will supply the aeroshell, heat shield, and a carrier spacecraft to ferry the entry vehicle from Earth to Venus, according to Garvin.

The carrier spacecraft will relay data from the DAVINCI+ descent probe back to Earth. The carrier will not enter orbit around Venus, but will fly by the planet on a trajectory to provide about an hour of solid communications with the entry vehicle.

If the descent probe safely reaches the surface, the mission could return some bonus data. But scientists have not committed to that as part of the DAVINCI+ primary mission.

“We get our own big radio communication system right there at Venus on a trajectory that gives us really favorable communications, a nice long arc that lasts up to an hour or so,” Garvin said. “In fact, if it survives surface impact, which we don’t know … we could potentially communicate for another 10 or 15 minutes because we would have the comm link. We don’t know if that will be possible, and it’s not part of our mission, but … we might have that opportunity.

“The spacecraft is thermally conditioned to operate for about an hour-and-a-half,” Garvin said. “Once it’s down in that hot environment, (the conditions) will eventually get to the point that the electronics of our primary four instruments will not be functional.”

The DAVINCI+ carrier spacecraft will have its own science instruments, including a suite of ultraviolet and near-infrared cameras to track cloud motion and measure thermal emissions from the surface.

A technology demonstration package on DAVINCI+ will test the Compact Ultraviolet to Visible Spectrometer, or CUVIS, instrument to study an unknown ultraviolet absorber in Venus’s atmosphere that absorbs up to half the incoming solar energy, NASA said.

According to Garvin, assuming DAVINCI+ launches in 2029, the mission will perform two flybys of Venus in 2030 before the returning to the planet in 2031 to release the descent probe.

Artist’s concept of the VERITAS spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The other Venus mission, VERITAS, will carry a synthetic aperture radar instrument on an orbiting spacecraft to survey the planet’s surface over nearly the entire planet.

“Our goal is to really understand the geologic evolution of Venus, why it’s different from the Earth, and try to understand why Venus never developed plate tectonics,” said Smrekar, the lead scientist on the VERITAS mission. “How has that affected the evolution of its climate?

“We’re looking at the volcanic history trying to understand whether its craters were wiped out by catastrophic volcanism, or whether, or not there’s steady, perhaps even Earth-like quantities of volcanism happening today,” Smrekar said in an interview. “So we have a lot of different science investigations to follow up on, but our overall goal is to understand the big picture evolution of Venus, and why it’s so different from its twin planet.”

The VERITAS spacecraft will carry two instruments to Venus.

The primary payload is an X-band synthetic aperture radar to greatly improve the 3D topographic maps produced by the Magellan mission.

“It will create global maps of the surface, a topography map, that has 100 times the resolution of Magellan,” Smrekar said.

The radar on VERITAS will produce data with a vertical accuracy of about 16 feet, or 5 meters, and a horizontal resolution of about 100 feet, or 30 meters, on a global scale. About 25% of the surface of Venus will be mapped at about 50-foot, or 15-meter, resolution, according to Smrekar.

“We also do repeat passage interferometry, which will be our first for any planet beyond the Earth,” she said. “We basically take radar images separated by about seven months, and then look for deformation between the images.

“We could see volcanic deformations, such as a caldera inflating or deflating,” she said. “We could see faulting deformation. There are suggestions that the rifting features on Venus could be active, so we’ll be looking for deformation in those kinds of areas. And from (ESA’s) Venus Express, we got hints of recent volcanism as well, so we’ll check out those areas.”

A spectrometer on the VERITAS spacecraft will peer through clouds and measure the composition of Venus’s surface. The spectrometer will be tuned to detect iron, among other elements.

“So we’ll be able to do things like assess the theory, the hypothesis, that Venus has continent-like features,” Smrekar said. “It has these big high plateaus that are highly deformed and are believed to be low in iron content. If that hypothesis is correct, they’re basically fingerprints of past water because on the Earth, when continents form, it’s basically massive quantities of basalt melting in the presence of water. So they may be basically remnants from Venus’s wetter past.”

VERITAS will also look for thermal and chemical signatures of recent volcanic eruptions, and search for water that could be spewed out of Venus’s interior through volcanoes. If there’s evidence of that, it would indicate there must be significant amounts of water in the interior of Venus.

The mission will also help refine estimates of the size of Venus’s core, Smrekar said.

She said the VERITAS and DAVINCI+ missions, while developed by separate teams, are “very complementary.”

“VERITAS provides the global mapping and context for any of the near-surface measurements that DAVINCI+ will make,” Smrekar said. “They will take imaging data as they descend below the cloud deck, so to have those images of areas that we have radar data for will be great ground truth for the radar. We can also provide to them targeting for the most exciting scientific targets.”

The spacecraft bus for VERITAS will be manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

The mission’s radar will be developed by JPL in partnership with ASI, the Italian space agency. Italy will also provide the mission’s high-gain antenna.

DLR, the German space agency, is providing the infrared spectrometer for the VERITAS mission, and will assist in radar data processing. The French space agency, CNES, will provide components for the spacecraft’s Ka-band communications system, Smrekar said.

VERITAS will also carry a deep space atomic clock built by JPL as a technology experiment. The atomic clock will help enable autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and enhance radio science observations to study the interior of Venus, NASA said.

Smrekar said the VERITAS mission will take about four months to travel from Earth and enter orbit around Venus.

DAVINCI+ and VERITAS join the successful “Discovery” line of NASA interplanetary missions.

Previous Discovery-class missions included the Dawn spacecraft, which orbited two of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, the Messenger mission to Mercury, and the InSight lander currently listening for seismic activity on Mars. Two Discovery missions selected in 2017 — named Lucy and Psyche — are scheduled for launch in 2021 and 2022 to begin missions focused on asteroid exploration.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface all the way down to its very core,” said Tom Wagner, NASA’s Discovery program scientist. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

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Live coverage: Minotaur 1 rocket set for launch from Virginia



Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a Northrop Grumman Minotaur 1 rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia. The mission will launch three payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office. Follow us on Twitter.

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A live video stream of the Minotaur 1 launch will be available on this page beginning at 6:30 a.m. EDT (1030 GMT) on Tuesday, June 15.

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Photos: Minotaur 1 rocket stands on launch pad in Virginia



Clad in a yellow thermal blanket that will peel away at liftoff, a 69-foot-tall (21-meter) Minotaur 1 rocket is standing on a launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, ready to deliver three small National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft to orbit.

The four-stage, solid-fueled rocket is set for liftoff from pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport run by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. The spaceport is co-located with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which runs the launch range.

Pad 0B is positioned about a quarter-mile (400 meters) south of pad 0A, the base for Antares rocket launches to resupply the International Space Station.

The Minotaur 1 rocket’s two lower stages are surplus motors taken from stockpiles of decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missiles. The yellow thermal blanket, sometimes called the “banana,” will rapidly peel off the rocket in sections when the first stage ignites to power the Minotaur 1 off the pad with more than 200,000 pounds of thrust.

The rocket is fitted with a 61-inch-diameter (1.55-meter) payload shroud, which will protect the three NRO spy satellite payloads during the first few minutes of flight through the atmosphere. The fairing will jettison after the Minotaur 1 reaches space.

See our Mission Status Center for more coverage of the NROL-111 mission.

These photos were taken June 10 during a mission dress rehearsal, when the mobile gantry at the launch pad was rolled back to reveal the Minotaur 1 rocket.

A Minotaur 1 rocket stands on pad 0B during a mission dress rehearsal June 10. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
A Northrop Grumman Minotaur 1 rocket stands on pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. The rocket is scheduled to launch on the NROL-111 mission Tuesday. Credit: National Reconnaissance Office
Credit: National Reconnaissance Office
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: National Reconnaissance Office
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

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Minotaur rocket set to launch top secret satellites from Virginia



A Northrop Grumman Minotaur 1 rocket stands on pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. The rocket is scheduled to launch on the NROL-111 mission Tuesday. Credit: National Reconnaissance Office

A Minotaur 1 rocket powered by a surplus Cold War-era missile stage more than 54 years old is poised to blast off from the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tuesday morning, heading to orbit with three top secret spacecraft for the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

The solid-fueled launcher, sized to haul small satellites into orbit, is awaiting liftoff from pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Liftoff is scheduled for 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT).

There is a 60% chance of favorable weather for launch Tuesday morning, according to the official launch forecast. The primary weather concerns are low cloud ceilings and cumulus clouds associated with a cold front moving through the area early Tuesday.

The Minotaur 1, assembled and operated by Northrop Grumman, is set to fly its first mission since 2013. The Minotaur rocket family is primarily geared to launch satellites for the military.

The 69-foot-tall (21-meter) rocket will is based on leftover solid-fueled motors from the U.S. Air Force’s Minuteman missile program. Designers added two Orion solid rocket motors on top of the lower two stages of a Minuteman missile to turn the bomb carriers into satellite launchers.

The Minotaur 1 rocket’s M55A1 first stage motor was cast with solid propellant in 1966 by Thiokol, now part of Northrop Grumman. The SR19 second stage motor, produced by Aerojet, was filled with its solid propellant in 1983, according to a Northrop Grumman spokesperson.

The age of the first stage likely means it is the oldest rocket motor ever used on a space launch.

After going on alert with nuclear warheads in silos during the Cold War, the Minuteman missile motors were stored at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and refurbished there before shipping out for launch preparations.

Military teams test-fired Minuteman motors with similar ages in 2019 and 2020, and engineers verified good performance in both stages.

“We are using these decommissioned assets, taxpayer-funded assets, and we’re taking them and we’re able to launch government-sponsored payloads, which to me is actually one of the coolest things about our Minotaur 1 rocket,” said Kelly Fitzpatrick, a Northrop Grumman senior guidance, navigation and control engineer.

The mission set for launch Tuesday is designated NROL-111. While the satellites on-board the Minotaur 1 rocket are classified, NRO officials held a pre-launch press conference last week to preview the mission.

“We certainly cannot get into any specifics for national security reasons, but I can tell you that there are three spacecraft that will be launched on this mission,” said Col. Chad Davis, director of the NRO’s office of space launch. “NRO payloads and capabilities, in general, are the nation’s eyes and ears in space, being able to deliver that exquisite intelligence information from space that our warfighters and national decision-makers need.”

NRO satellites collect high-resolution optical and radar imagery of sites around the world, eavesdrop on communications from U.S. adversaries, and help track worldwide military activity.

In 2016, the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, then part of the Air Force, selected a Minotaur 1 rocket for the NROL-111 mission. The launch contract awarded to Orbital ATK, since acquired by Northrop Grumman, was valued at $29.2 million.

A Minotaur 1 rocket stands on pad 0B during a mission dress rehearsal June 10. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

Airspace warning notices indicate the Minotaur 1 rocket will head southeast from Wallops Flight Facility, likely targeting an orbit a few hundred miles in altitude at an inclination of around 50 degrees to the equator, according to Marco Langbroek, a Dutch archaeologist and expert tracker of military satellites.

The Minotaur 1’s first stage will ignite as the five-hour countdown strikes zero at Wallops. A hydraulic thrust vector system will steer the rocket on a trajectory over the Atlantic Ocean as the first stage burns through its pre-packed propellant to generate more than 200,000 pounds of thrust.

After exceeding the speed of sound in less than 30 seconds, the Minotaur will shed its spent first stage motor casing about a minute into the mission. The Minuteman second stage will ignite at the same time and burn for 72 seconds, accelerating the rocket to more than 6,000 mph (nearly 10,000 kilometers per hour).

Two commercially-produced solid rocket motors will finish the job of placing the three NRO payloads into orbit.

An Orion 50XL third stage will ignite nearly two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s 61-inch-diameter (1.55-meter) titanium payload fairing will jettison during the third stage burn, once the Minotaur 1 flies above the dense, lower layers of the atmosphere.

After burnout of the third stage, the rocket will coast for several minutes until it reaches the proper altitude for ignition of the fourth stage Orion 38 motor, which will place the three NRO satellites into orbit. The payloads will separate from the rocket soon after the fourth stage completes its burn.

The launch Tuesday will mark the 28th flight of a Minotaur rocket since 2000, including suborbital missions. It will be the 18th orbital launch of a Minotaur rocket, and the 12th use of the Minotaur 1 configuration. Northrop Grumman also launches the Minotaur 4 rocket family using more powerful surplus Peacekeeper missile motors.

It will be the eighth Minotaur rocket to launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. Minotaur missions have also launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska, and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The NROL-111 mission patch shows a flying wild boar in traditional aviator gear. Boars are a good spirit guide to call on when you have ambitious goals, and inspire tenacity in the hunt to achieve them. The three stars represent the three payloads designed, built, and operated by NRO. Photo and caption credit: National Reconnaissance Office

The NROL-111 mission is the second launch in two days for Northrop Grumman’s rocket program.

The company’s air-launched Pegasus XL rocket fired into orbit Sunday off the coast of California with a small Space Force satellite named Odyssey. The spacecraft was developed in less than a year, and the Space Force conceived the mission as a demonstration for a “tactically responsive launch” capability.

Military officials informed Northrop Grumman of the target launch date and the mission’s orbital parameters just 21 days ahead of time. Northrop Grumman configured a Pegasus rocket already in its inventory to launch the Odyssey space surveillance satellite.

“It just shows the depth and breadth of Northrop Grumman’s capabilities that we have fairly independent teams to be able to get these two launches off in two days on opposite coasts,” said Kurt Eberly, head of the company’s launch vehicles division.

“These launches are both for the U.S. Space Force, so when they want to launch, and when the Space Force’s customer — the NRO — wants to launch, we try to be there on the day that they want,” Eberly said.

Northrop Grumman’s orbital-class rockets, which also include the Antares launcher used for space station resupply missions, have a relatively low flight rate. The launch Sunday was the first flight of a Pegasus rocket since 2019, and Antares rockets typically launch about twice per year.

But the company also launches suborbital rockets on tests of the U.S. military’s missile defense system. Eberly said Northrop Grumman plans to launch 28 rockets in 2021, and they all use the same common avionics package, from small target vehicles to the medium-class Antares rocket.

“Most of them you’re not really going to hear about,” he said. “They’re target launches for various parts of the military, but nonetheless each of those is a rocket in and of itself.”

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Hanwha, KAI and LIG Nex1 to lead South Korea’s private-sector-driven satellite development



SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has taken yet another step toward having a domestic satellite industry that is driven by the private sector.

Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), a state-funded university that has developed several satellites, has agreed to share its spacecraft-manufacturing technologies and know-how with three major South Korean aerospace companies.

Hanwha Aerospace, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and LIG Nex1 are the first private aerospace companies to benefit from a public-to-private space technology transfer initiative led by KAIST, which built South Korea’s first satellite KITSAT-1 that launched in August 1992.

The program follows the May 21 summit between South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden at the White House, where they agreed to strengthen their partnership in civil space exploration, science, aeronautics research and cooperate for effective joint response against security threats in space.

Each company will pay KAIST 5-10 billion won ($4.5-9 million) in return for acquiring the technological assets they need by around 2024, said Kwon Se-jin, a professor at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at KAIST and chief of the Satellite Technology Research Center, a KAIST-associated institute in charge of the transfer.

In March, KARI declared it would stop developing 500-kilogram-class satellites by 2025 at the latest, selecting KAI as its successor to lead the category.

According to Kwon, Hanwha Aerospace wants technologies needed to develop laser inter-satellite links (LISLs), a laser-based data relay technology enabling satellites to transfer communications from one spacecraft to another, either in the same orbital plane or an adjacent plane. 

He said 10 Starlink satellites launched to polar orbit Jan. 24 feature the technology.

Hanwha plans to apply LISLs to a constellation of 2,000 satellites it is building for low Earth orbit deployment by 2030, providing connectivity to urban cargo-delivery drones and passenger airplanes.

While KAI looks for technologies needed to develop power systems for small satellites and ground stations, LIG Nex1 wants technologies for nanosats, he said.

“The transfer [of technologies] will be done through joint research and development between KAIST and the companies, not just sharing documents, because it’s not something they can acquire only with documents,” Kwon said. 

“KAIST has accumulated technologies spending taxpayers’ money for over 30 years. It’s time for us to pay back.”

110 small public satellites

With the transferred technologies, Kwon said the three companies will “play a key role in fulfilling the government’s mission of launching 110 small public satellites by 2031.”

This mission was recently added to the government’s space development road map by the National Space Committee, a policymaking body.

“The launch [of 110 public satellites] is to nurture the domestic satellite market with demand on the public side,” Science and ICT Minister Lim Hye-sook told reporters June 9, announcing the revised road map. 

“An increased demand [for satellites] on the public side will set the stage for more private companies to join the market and ensure their stable growth.”

According to the science ministry’s news release, the planned 110 small satellites include 60 reconnaissance satellites for national security, 14 communications satellites to test 6G broadband internet and 22 observation satellites to monitor space weather. 

Five satellites aim to demonstrate technologies for space debris removal and other in-orbit services, which will be “fully commercialized in 10 years,” according to the document. It did not contain detailed information such as specific timelines, budgets and developers.

Kwon said KAIST is “ready to support” companies interested in the satellite business.

With expectations that more companies would seek KAIST’s help, the university’s Satellite Technology Research Center is planning to launch a 17-month intensive training program for 10 satellite engineers. 

Kwon said KAIST is refocusing on “long-term missions that private companies can’t afford” as the organization looks to unload satellites from its development portfolio.

“Among technologies we are going to explore include ones needed for space rendezvous, exploration of the Van Allen radiation belt and asteroids,” he said.

“Space rendezvous technology could be applied to making spacecraft for space debris removal.”

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