Rockets of Today

BLUE WHALE — South Korea

At a point when the South Korean government was wondering aloud whether there was any point in pursuing a space program and building a successor to the Naro rocket, we learned that a tiny company called Perigee Aerospace (페리지항공우주) had been working on a private rocket since 2012. Now emerging from stealth and backed by Samsung money, they have a launch vehicle called the Blue Whale 1. Ironically for something named after the world’s biggest animal, the rocket is absurdly tiny. Under two tons! Some of its competitors, which are still considered small, can launch payloads as big as this entire rocket.

They intend to mainly go for sun-synchronous orbits, and in that role their max payload would be 50 kilograms. Like most rocket companies, they also say that later on they’ll make something much bigger. In their case, that means something about the size of the Electron.

So how can something so tiny get the job done? With an advanced engine — a kerosene burner with an oxygen-rich staged combustion cycle, like an Energomash engine. The most unbelievable part of the story may be the plan to build an engine this complex and advanced into a rocket that costs only two million dollars. How did they pull this off? How does it work? We have no idea. Details and technical data are very sparse. For instance, I have no information at all about the upper stage. The company’s website is nearly content-free, and the usual places that collect rocket info don’t even know how its name is spelled in Korean. (푸른 고래-1?). It might be made of carbon composite, but there’s nothing definite about that.

They won’t be launching it from Korean soil. Because they want to launch frequently, they need a spot with little nearby air traffic. They found their spot on the south coast of Australia, at a place called Whalers Bay on the Eyre Peninsula. It’s under construction, but facing some trouble with endangered species.

Blue Whale 1: mass 1.8 t, diam 0.76 m, thrust unknown, imp 3.5 km/s, staged combustion (kerosene), payload 0.07 t (4%), cost ~$28M/t.