Radar images of asteroid Apophis captured by NASA in 2012. South Korea planned to launch a spacecraft to probe the space rock when it passes near Earth in April 2029, but it recently scrapped it due to a “lack of technical capabilities.” Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

SEOUL, South Korea — Citing a “lack of technical capabilities,” South Korea has dropped the plan of developing a robotic spacecraft to escort asteroid Apophis during its 2029 close encounter with Earth.

The science ministry, which manages state-funded space programs, recently ruled the mission “unfeasible” and decided not to request the $307.7 million budget it initially sought for the mission. The mission involved launching a robotic spacecraft between July 2026 and January 2027 to accompany Apophis as it whips by Earth in April 2029. The probe would observe and map Apophis the whole way, looking for changes in its structure due to its close encounter with Earth and the planet’s gravitational forces. In March 2021, then-President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said the mission, if executed, would help “cement the foundation of the nation’s space industry and advance related capabilities.”

“We’ve decided not to pursue Apophis probe mission because there were various issues making it difficult for the mission to be successful,” Shin Won-sik, a science ministry official, told SpaceNews. “To probe Apophis, we have to launch a spacecraft by 2027 at the latest. But with the rocket and spacecraft-making capabilities we have, it’s unrealistic to launch in time.”

The official said although the Apophis mission was canceled, it doesn’t mean South Korea has completely crossed off asteroid missions from its future mission catalog. Rather, he said, the government feels the need to develop a “concrete plan” to carry out a probe of another asteroid approaching Earth after Apophis.

“We will start working on the 4th revision of the Basic Plan for Promotion of Space Development in the second half of the year. And it’s likely that a bit more concrete and realistic plan for [the] asteroid mission [than the 3rd revision] would be included in the new plan,” Shin said.

The 3rd revision, announced in February 2018, contained only a rough plan with few details. It said “a spacecraft for asteroid sample-return mission would launch by 2035 with the country’s own capacity.” The plan assumed  South Korea would be able to secure necessary technologies and capabilities by launching the nation’s first lunar orbiter in 2022 and a robotic lunar lander by 2030. The lunar orbiter plan is proceeding on schedule, with the spacecraft set to launch Aug. 3 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. There’s been comparatively little progress on the planned development of a lunar lander or a rocket capable of putting a domestically built probe on an intercept course with an approaching asteroid. 

Meanwhile, NASA decided in April to extend its OSIRIS-Rex mission to have it visit Apophis after swinging past Earth in September 2023 to eject a canister of samples collected from the asteroid Bennu. During its extended mission, OSIRIS-Rex will encounter Apophis in 2029 shortly after that asteroid passes 32,000 kilometers from the Earth. The spacecraft will spend 18 months in the vicinity of Apophis, studying the 350-meter asteroid and coming close enough to use its thrusters to brush away surface rocks and expose subsurface materials. 

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...