Backed by Samsung, South Korean startup Perigee aims for 2020 maiden launch

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WASHINGTON — A little-known Korean startup backed by Samsung is preparing to launch a small orbital rocket in July. 

Perigee Aerospace of Daejeon, South Korea, has raised around $12 million from Samsung Venture Investments, LB Investment and others to develop Blue Whale 1, a small launcher capable of carrying 50 kilograms to a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, CEO Yoon Shin said in an interview. 

Shin said Perigee Aerospace has had sufficient funding to develop the very small rocket, allowing the company to operate in stealth mode until getting within a year of launch. 

“Up to now, we didn’t feel any need to announce our development plans or launch vehicle operations plans,” Shin said at the 70th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 21. “But I think it’s a great time because we have now almost completed the development of the vehicle.”

Samsung Ventures Investment Director Chulhan Lee, told SpaceNews Oct. 22 by email that the cellphone giant invested an undisclosed amount in Perigee Aerospace. 

Perigee Aerospace’s core team came together in 2012 and formally established the company just last year, but is leveraging “decades” of engine development from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Shin said. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute, KARI, also contributed pro bono technical consultations, he said. 

Blue Whale 1’s maiden flight will carry a dummy payload to prove the two-stage rocket works, Shin said. The next launch will send a 50-kilogram payload into orbit in early 2021 if not sooner, he said. The company is offering launches for $2 million. 

Perigee Aerospace plans to launch from the upcoming Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex that another company, Southern Launch, is building on Australia’s southern coastline. Shin said the launch site will be ready in time for Blue Whale 1’s July debut. 

A more difficult pacing item for Perigee Aerospace is clearing regulatory hurdles to ship its rockets to Australia, he said. 

“The problem is exporting the launch vehicle from South Korea to Australian soil,” Shin said. “That’s something no one has done before, so it’s taking some time.”

The Australian Space Agency, which was formally established in 2018, updated the nation’s launch regulations in August but is still new to licensing launches. Shin said Perigee Aerospace is working closely with the Australian Space Agency to export its first Blue Whale 1 rocket. 

Australia is a favorable location to launch from because it has little aviation and maritime traffic to schedule around, Shin said. Perigee needed a location free of such constraints, he said, because it wants to eventually launch up to 40 times a year. 

Shin said that that launch rate is possible because Blue Whale 1 will be the smallest launcher in the world. At 8.5 meters tall, the rocket is half as tall and a third as powerful as Rocket Lab’s Electron, a small launcher capable of lofting 150 kilograms to a 500-kilometer orbit. Blue Whale 1 is 760 millimeters in diameter, and weighs 1,790 kilograms. 

“The size really matters in terms of increasing the production rate, so I think that’s the biggest size that we can handle in terms of the mass production facility that we are making,” he said. 

Shin said Perigee Aerospace will seek to raise additional funding to expand its  production capacity. 

Perigee Aerospace currently employs 30 people, Shin said, and plans to hire 15 more by the end of the year. The company has eight customer contracts in backlog, including a remote sensing customer in South Korea and an Australian university, he said. 

After establishing Blue Whale 1, Perigee Aerospace intends to develop a larger vehicle capable of launching 250 to 300 kilograms to low Earth orbit. The company hopes to debut the larger vehicle within two to three years of Blue Whale 1’s maiden launch, he said.