South Korea launched its first lunar mission on a SpaceX rocket

South Korea launched its first lunar mission on a SpaceX rocket

South Korea joined the list of countries with ambitious plans in space, and it took to the moon on Thursday.

Its first lunar spacecraft, named Danuri, was flown toward space at the scheduled time at 7:08 p.m. ET by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. After about 40 minutes and a series of engine launches, the Korean spacecraft detached from the rocket’s second stage, and proceeded to its journey to the moon.

When you reach lunar orbit, you will join a spacecraft from NASA, India and China that is currently exploring Earth’s companion. The Danuri science payload will study the moon’s magnetic field, measure the amounts of elements and molecules such as uranium, water and helium-3, and photograph dark craters at the poles where the sun never shines.

Originally known as the Korean Lunar Pathfinder Orbiter, the mission has now been named Danuri, a combination of Korean words meaning “moon” and “enjoy.” It will be South Korea’s first space mission beyond low Earth orbit.

Its scientific instruments include a magnetometer, a gamma ray spectrometer and three cameras. NASA fitted one of the cameras, ShadowCam, which is sensitive enough to capture the few photons bouncing off the terrain into the moon’s permanently dark and shadowed craters. These craters, located at the moon’s poles, remain forever cold, below minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and contain water ice that has accumulated over the ages.

The ice could provide a frozen history of the solar system’s 4.5 billion years as well as plenty of resources for future visiting astronauts. Ice can also be mined and melted to provide water and broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, providing both breathing air for astronauts and rocket thrusters for travelers looking to blast off from the moon to other destinations.

South Korea is developing its own missiles. Its first design, the Naro-1, succeeded in reaching orbit on its third attempt, in 2013. Since then, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute – the South Korean equivalent of NASA – has turned its efforts to the Nuri, a larger three-stage rocket . Nuri’s second flight in June successfully put several satellites into orbit.

The United States and the Soviet Union sent several robotic spacecraft to the Moon beginning in the 1960s. NASA’s Apollo program sent astronauts there from 1968 until 1972. Then the world almost completely lost interest in the moon for three decades, but the buzz of activity returned.

In the past few years, China has sent several successful robotic spacecraft, including three landers. NASA has sent several orbiters there and is recruiting commercial companies to send payloads to the lunar surface in the coming years.

Japan and the European Space Agency launched lunar missions, and India sent two orbiters to the moon, although a lander accompanying the second one crashed, during its descent to the surface in 2019.

Another mission in 2019, Beresheet, the lander built by the Israeli non-profit organization, SpaceIL, also crashed while trying to land on the moon.

The spacecraft is taking a long, energy-efficient route to the moon. It first heads toward the sun, then returns around to be captured in a lunar orbit in mid-December. This “ballistic trajectory” takes longer but does not require launching a large engine to slow the spacecraft when it reaches the moon.

Danuri will then adjust its orbit 62 miles above the lunar surface. The main scientific mission is scheduled to last for one year.

A small NASA-funded spacecraft, CAPSTONE, is on its way to the moon to explore a highly elliptical orbit, as NASA plans to build a lunar base for future astronauts. It is due to reach lunar orbit in November.

But this year’s big event will be Artemis 1, an unmanned test of NASA’s giant rocket and NASA capsule that will return astronauts to the Moon in the coming years. NASA aims to launch in late August or early September.

Two commercial companies, ispace of Japan and Intuitive Machines of Houston, hope to launch small robotic landers to the moon late this year.

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