KITSAT-1, the first South Korean satellite

Launched as a piggyback payload on an Ariane 4 (as part of the TOPEX/Poseidon mission) in August 1992 from Kourou in French Guyana, KITSAT-1, the first South Korean satellite, was developed by SaTRec after three years of participation in an educational program at the University of Surrey (England) in satellite development and training of researchers. KITSAT-1 was used to conduct experiments in Earth imaging and audio/video communication. The successful launch of KITSAT-1 (Korea Institute of Technology Satellite-1) opened the door to outer space exploration for South Korea (that became the twenty-second country to operate a satellite) and allowed the nation to take pride in being one of the few nations in the world to have a national satellite.

Nicknamed “Our Star”, KITSAT-1, the first South Korean satellite, was a collaborative research mission, encompassing the installation of a ground station in South Korea, participation of Korean engineers in the UoSAT-5 mission, technology transfer and training of students on the MSc courses at Surrey in England. It was based on the thirty-five centimetres × thirty-five centimetres × sixty-seven centimetres modular micro-satellite bus previously flown on UoSAT-3 (University of Surrey Satellite); power was provided by body-mounted solar cells and attitude control was provided by a gravity-gradient boom.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI)

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) established in 1989, is the aeronautics and space agency of the Republic of Korea. Its main laboratories are located in Daejeon, in the Daedeok Science Town. The project of KARI is “to continue building upon indigenous launch capabilities, strengthen national safety and public service, industrialise satellite information and applications technology, explore the Moon, and develop environmentally-friendly and highly-efficient cutting-edge aircraft and core aerospace technology”.

On KARI’s website, we read the following: “Despite its relatively short history, it has developed the world’s leading aerospace scientific technologies, contributing to the development of the national economy and the improvement of the citizens’ quality of life through its commitment to research and development”. “In the satellite field, we have developed Arirang, the world’s leading high-resolution earth observing satellite and Cheollian for meteorological and marine observation. In the space launch vehicle field, we have constructed the Naro Space Center and succeeded in launching Naro which was Korea’s first space launch vehicle”.

KITSAT-1, the first South Korean satellite’s legal status

Is KITSAT-1, the first South Korean satellite, a space object? The term Object in reference to outer space was first used in 1961 in General Assembly Resolution 1721 (XVI) titled International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space to describe any object launched by States into outer space. Professor Bin Cheng, a world authority on International Air and Space Law, has noted that members of the COPUOS during negotiations over the space treaties treated spacecraft and space vehicles as synonymous terms. The Space Object can be considered as the “conventional launcher (ELV)”, the “reusable launcher (RLV)”, the “satellite”, the “orbital station”, the “probe”, the “impactor”, the “space telescope”, the “International Space Station (ISS)”… As Professors Diederiks-Verschoor and Kopal wrote in An Introduction to Space Law, the term space object “is indeed the commonly used expression, but it must always be borne in mind that its exact meaning is still not quite clear”.

An object is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A material thing that can be seen and touched”. The five Onusian treaties don’t use the term satellite, instead opting for “object launched into outer space” in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty or “space object” in the 1972 Liability Convention and the 1976 Registration Convention. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty doesn’t really provide a definition for “object launched into outer space” other than an indication in Article VIII that it includes the “component parts” of the “object launched into outer space”. To add to the mix, Article V of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty uses the term “space vehicle” and the 1968 Rescue Agreement (which is essentially an elaboration of Article V of the OST) uses the term “spacecraft”. A good definition is given by Professor Hobe who write that a “space object is a human made object launched into outer space intended to be used in (as opposed to merely transit through) outer space”.

Let’s remember that “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose”, article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969. In addition, “Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31: (a) leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure; or (b) leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable”, article 32 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969.

Let’s recall that a space object causing damage triggers international third-party liability under the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (entered into force in September 1972). Article I (d) of which enounces that “the term space object includes component parts of a space object as well as its launch vehicle and parts thereof”. Its Article II adds that “A launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight”.

A space object requires, thanks to the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in September 1976), registration. Article II of which states that “When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry”.

Finally, the term space object effectively triggers application of much of both the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force in October 1967) and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force in December 1968). Article VII of the first declares that “Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air space or in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

Article 5 of the latter states that “1. Each Contracting Party which receives information or discovers that a space object or its component parts has returned to Earth in territory under its jurisdiction or on the high seas or in any other place not under the jurisdiction of any State, shall notify the launching authority and the Secretary-General of the United Nations. 2. Each Contracting Party having jurisdiction over the territory on which a space object or its component parts has been discovered shall, upon the request of the launching authority and with assistance from that authority if requested, take such steps as it finds practicable to recover the object or component parts. 3. Upon request of the launching authority, objects launched into outer space or their component parts found beyond the territorial limits of the launching authority shall be returned to or held at the disposal of representatives of the launching authority, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty doesn’t really provide a definition for “object launched into outer space” other than an indication in Article VIII that it includes the “component parts” of the “object launched into outer space”. It states that “A State Party to the Treaty on whose registry an object launched into outer space is carried shall retain jurisdiction and control over such object, and over any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body. Ownership of objects launched into outer space, including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth. Such objects or component parts found beyond the limits of the State Party to the Treaty on whose registry they are carried shall be returned to that State Party, which shall, upon request, furnish identifying data prior to their return”. We’ll conclude with the definition given by Professor Hobe who wrote that a “space object is a human made object launched into outer space intended to be used in (as opposed to merely transit through) outer space”.

As a conclusion, we can say that KITSAT-1, the first South Korean satellite, was a space object.