SEOUL, South Korea — In a bid to nurture its nascent domestic space sector, South Korea is seeking a 640 billion won ($553 million) annual space budget for 2022. If granted in full, it would amount to a 4 percent increase from this year’s 615 billion won.

The government’s budget request will go through a parliamentary review to get approval by the end of the year, with the nation’s new budget year beginning Jan. 1.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance, in charge of state budget planning, unveiled its budget request for the space sector Sept. 2, saying the nascent sector needs the government’s “active investment to establish its own ecosystem.” The ministry acknowledged the space sector’s growth potential, putting space in a pool of 10 strategically important sectors — including semiconductor, bio-healthcare, future mobility, quantum computing and 6G internet — that will get substantial public funding throughout next year.

According to a document detailing the request, the biggest slice of it, or 172.8 billion won, will go to “developing and advancing the country’s indigenous space launch vehicle.”

While the country is set to launch its first domestically developed space launch vehicle KSLV-2 — a three-stage liquid-propellant rocket capable of hauling up to 1,500 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit — in October, it has already set off on a journey to develop bigger and more powerful rocket. The 172.8 billion won is a fraction of  the 700 billion won South Korea is planning to invest for the rollout of a next-generation space launch vehicle by 2026, according to the document.

“We are planning to develop a next-generation launch vehicle based upon KSLV-2, capable of launching our [robotic] lunar orbiter on our own,” said Kwon Hyun-joon, a senior official of the Space, Nuclear and Big Science Policy Bureau at the Ministry of Science and ICT, in June. “There is another idea under consideration: making a more innovative model, for which we need to do everything from scratch.”  

Another major space project, for which the government set aside 84.5 billion won next year, is establishing South Korea’s own satellite navigation system, called Korea Positioning System (KPS). The project will begin next year and take 13 years to complete, during which the government will spend a total of 3.7 trillion won launching eight satellites — three satellites into geosynchronous orbit and five into inclined geosynchronous orbit.

Launching the nation’s first robotic lunar orbiter, called Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), is another main project, for which the government is planning to invest 19.8 billion won. The spacecraft is set to launch in August 2022 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to image the moon for one year. NASA provided an advanced lunar reconnaissance orbiter camera, nicknamed ShadowCam, to the orbiter in a show of support. In return, the KPLO will be assigned work for NASA’s moon mission identifying areas with water.

The government said KPLO’s launch will “fulfill South Korea’s role as a major partner of the Artemis Program and enhance the bilateral cooperation in space.”

In smaller projects, the government will spend 9.1 billion won opening five university-associated space education centers and 5.7 billion won launching public services that utilize satellite data.

On the military front, there are several big-budget projects set to launch next year, though details remain undisclosed. The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), South Korea’s arms procurement agency, is planning to invest 16 trillion won ($13.6 billion) over the next 10 years to bolster its defense capabilities in outer space. This includes 1.6 trillion won to be used to develop “core technologies” for military satellites. Disclosed projects include building a constellation of microsatellites to monitor North Korea, development of next-generation Earth observation and infrared imaging systems for military satellites, and core components of hybrid synthetic aperture radars. While the defense ministry will scale up the Space Operation Squadron under the Korea Aerospace Operation Center, it has no plan to establish an independent unit like the Space Force.

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...