The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) commissioned Korean Air (KAL) and Seoul National University to study the feasibility of using large commercial aircraft to launch a rocket that can send small satellites into orbit.

The study will focus on using the Boeing 747-400 operated by the airline, analyzing the “current technology capability, major technology to be applied, annual operating costs, and necessary aircraft modification for air launching,” Korean Air said in a statement.

While their payload is only a fraction of a conventional launcher, the use of mothership aircraft could help South Korea overcomes the challenges due to its geographical position. “Currently, satellites can only be launched southward from Naro Space Center, Korea’s spaceport located in the southwest province,” the statement explains. “However, air launch vehicles can be launched in various directions and routes.” Additionally, launching from an altitude of 12 kilometers reduces greatly the risks of inclement weather conditions.

By developing its own launching capabilities, South Korea would gain sovereignty. As it stands, the country has to rely on third parties to launch most of its satellites, which takes on average more than two years between the contracting and the launch. Eventually, Korean Air envisions to offer its services to foreign customers. 

"To attract the fast-growing, worldwide demand for small satellite launches, it is essential to develop capabilities for air launching, which is not affected by weather or geographical conditions,” said Korean Air. “We will use our extensive experience operating aircraft and expertise in the aerospace business, which includes aircraft system integration and assembling Korea’s first space launch vehicle, Naro, to develop an air launch system that is competitive in the global market.”

A similar system was developed by Virgin Orbit with its LauncherOne two-stage rocket carried by a Boeing 747 airliner, named Cosmic Girl, as the mothership. The first commercial launch took place on June 30, 2021, on behalf of the US Department of Defense, the Royal Netherlands Air Force, and the Polish company SatRevolution.

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Virgin Orbit conducted the first commercial launch of its air-launched LauncherOne rocket.