Authorities said that South Korea was prepared to test-launch its first domestically made space rocket on Thursday, a crucial step in the country's pursuit of a satellite launch program.
The three-stage Nuri rocket was set to launch at around 4 p.m. (700 GMT) to deliver a fake payload — a 1.5-ton block of stainless steel and aluminum — into orbit 600 to 800 kilometers (372 to 497 miles) above Earth, depending on weather and other factors.
Engineers completed assembling the 47-meter (154-foot) rocket on a launch pad at the Naro Space Center, South Korea's only spaceport, on a small island off the country's southern coast, on Wednesday night, according to the country's Science Ministry.
South Korea is attempting to become the tenth country to launch a satellite into space using its technology after relying on other countries to launch its satellites since the early 1990s.
According to officials, such a capability would be critical for its space goals, including plans to send more modern communications satellites and acquire its military intelligence satellites. By 2030, the country hopes to deploy a probe to the moon.
Nuri is the country's first space launch vehicle designed wholly in-house. The three-stage rocket, propelled by five 75-ton class rocket engines in the first and second stages, is planned to place a 1.5-ton payload into orbit 600 to 800 kilometers (372 to 497 miles) above Earth.
Scientists and engineers will further test Nuri at the Korea Aerospace Institute, including a fake launch in May 2022, before trying with an actual satellite.
In 2013, South Korea launched a space launch vehicle from the Naro spaceport, a two-stage rocket based on Russian technology. That launch came after years of delays and failures — the Naro rocket achieved the proper altitude in 2009 but failed to expel a satellite into orbit and then detonated shortly after takeoff in 2010.
It was unclear how North Korea would react to Thursday's launch, accused of exploiting previous satellite launches as a cover for developing long-range missile capability.
While pursuing its nuclear and missile programs, the North had expressed concern over South Korea's increased defense budget and planned to develop more powerful conventionally armed missiles.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accused the US and South Korea of "destroying the stability and balance" in the area with their allied military exercises and a US-led "excessive arms buildup" in the South in a speech to Pyongyang's rubber-stamp parliament last month.
While Nuri is propelled by liquid fuels that must be refueled just before launch, South Korea plans to construct a solid-fuel space launch rocket by 2024 that might be ready for launch faster and be more cost-effective.