South Korea launches first lunar mission on SpaceX rocket

Joining the list of nations with ambitious space plans, South Korea left for the moon on Thursday.

Its first lunar spacecraft, named Danuri, was blasted into space at 7:08 p.m. Eastern Time by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. . After about 40 minutes and a series of engine firings, the Korean spacecraft separated from the rocket’s second stage, embarking on its journey to the moon.

When it arrives in lunar orbit, it will join spacecraft from NASA, India and China that are currently exploring Earth’s companion. Danuri’s science payload will study the moon’s magnetic field, measure amounts of elements and molecules like uranium, water and helium-3, and photograph dark craters at the poles where the sun doesn’t shine. never.

Originally known as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, the mission has now been given the name Danuri, a portmanteau of the Korean words for “moon” and “enjoy.” It will be the first South Korean space mission to go beyond low Earth orbit.

Its scientific instruments include a magnetometer, a gamma spectrometer and three cameras. NASA provided one of the cameras, ShadowCam, which is sensitive enough to pick up the few photons bouncing off the ground in the moon’s dark, permanently shadowed craters. These craters, located at the moon’s poles, always remain cold, below minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and contain water ice that has accumulated over eons.

The ice could provide a frozen history of the solar system’s 4.5 billion years and an abundance of resources for future visiting astronauts. This ice can also be mined and melted to provide water and broken into oxygen and hydrogen, which would provide both air for astronauts to breathe and rocket boosters for travelers seeking to blast off from the planet. moon to other destinations.

South Korea is developing its own rockets. Its first design, Naro-1, managed to reach orbit on the third try, in 2013. Since then, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute – the South Korean equivalent of NASA – has shifted its efforts to Nuri, a rocket taller with three floors. The second Nuri flight in June successfully placed several satellites into orbit.

The United States and the Soviet Union sent many robotic spacecraft to the Moon starting in the 1960s. NASA’s Apollo program sent astronauts there from 1968 to 1972. The world then lost interest almost entirely for the Moon for three decades, but a hubbub of activity returned.

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

Japan and the European Space Agency have launched lunar missions, and India has sent two orbiters to the moon, although a lander accompanying the second orbiter crashed as it descended to the surface in 2019.

Another mission in 2019, Beresheet, a lander built by Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, also crashed while trying to land on the moon.

The spacecraft takes a long, energy-efficient route to the moon. It first heads towards the sun, then loops around to be captured in lunar orbit in mid-December. This “ballistic trajectory” takes longer but does not require large engines to slow the spacecraft as it arrives on the moon.

Danuri will then adjust its orbit to an altitude of 62 miles above the moon’s surface. The main scientific mission is planned for a period of one year.

A small NASA-funded spacecraft, CAPSTONE, is on its way to the moon to explore a highly elliptical orbit, where NASA plans to build a lunar outpost for future astronauts. It is expected to arrive in lunar orbit in November.

But the big event of the year will be Artemis 1, an uncrewed test of NASA’s giant rocket and capsule that is to return astronauts to the Moon in years to come. NASA is aiming for a launch in late August or early September.

Two commercial companies, Japan’s ispace and Houston’s Intuitive Machines, also hope to launch small robotic landers on the moon later this year.

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