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South Korea's probe is on its way to the Earth's Moon

SpaceX rocket launched KPLO into lunar orbit

South Korea joined the lunar explorers club on Thursday, August 4, 2022, with the launch of a lunar orbiter that will explore future landing spots. The KPLO or Danuri spacecraft, launched by SpaceX from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, is already traveling an indirect Earth-Moon trajectory to save propellant and will reach its target in December. The Falcon 9 Rocketv1.2 FT Block 5 number B1052.6 took off at 19:08 ET (23:08 UTC). If successful, the spacecraft will join those of the US and India already operating around the Moon and a Chinese rover exploring the far side of Earth's natural satellite. India, Russia, and Japan have new lunar missions slated for later this year or next, as do a number of private companies in the US and elsewhere. The first stage 'core' Booster landed 640 km from the launch site on the Just Read The Instructions drone ship. The rocket's head fairing shells were recovered by the SpaceX vessel "Bob" 730 km away from Florida.

The second stage of the rocket fired several times to place the probe on an initial apogee and perigee trajectory of 250 km, inclined at 28.5 degrees. Afterward, the trajectory will change to a perigee of 1,687,814 km and an apogee of 1,687,813.9 km.

Danuri – Korean for “Moon Explorer,” or KPLO – Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter – is carrying six science instruments, including a NASA camera. It was designed to study ice-filled, permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles. NASA favors the lunar South Pole for future astronaut outposts due to evidence of frozen water and natural resources. South Korea plans to land its own spacecraft on the Moon – a robotic probe – by 2030 or later.

KPLO is the first lunar mission developed and managed by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, and will be a joint mission with NASA. The cube-shaped orbiter will circle the Moon for about a year. During this period, it will carry out six experiments: five from Korean universities and research institutes and one from the US, the South Korean space agency said.

The onboard experiments are:

  • Measurement of gamma rays coming from the lunar surface.

  • Spatial Internet: Demonstrating an interruption-tolerant network, or "spatial internet".

  • Measurement of the lunar magnetic field.

  • Lunar Terrain Imager: A high resolution camera that will take pictures of potential landing sites for future lunar exploration missions.

  • Wide-Angle Polarimetric Camera: This experiment will study the composition of the Moon's surface, except for the polar regions and volcanic deposits.

  • ShadowCam: NASA-funded experiment using an ultra-sensitive camera to take pictures of permanently shadowed areas of the Moon to study terrain and look for evidence of frost and ice deposits.

The $180 million mission — the country's first step in lunar exploration — features a square, solar-powered satellite designed to orbit 100 kilometers above the lunar surface. Scientists hope to collect geological and other data for at least a year from this low polar orbit.

In June, South Korea successfully launched a package of satellites into orbit around the Earth for the first time using its own rocket. The first attempt failed last fall, with the test satellite failing to reach orbit. In May, the country joined an American-led coalition to explore the moon with astronauts for years and decades to come, which NASA is targeting later this month for the first launch, in its Artemis program. The goal is to send an unmanned capsule around the Moon and back to test the systems before a crew comes aboard in two years. “…Danuri is just the beginning,” said Sang-Ryool Lee, president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, at the SpaceX launch webcast.