SpaceX launches Korean moon probe

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space on Thursday night and sent a South Korean science probe on its way to the moon on an ambitious mission to help search for ice deposits in permanently shadowed polar craters.

Equipped with four Korean instruments – two cameras, a gamma-ray spectrometer and a magnetometer – the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) spacecraft also has an ultra-sensitive NASA camera known as the “ShadowCam” designed to peer into these dark craters to help scientists see what is really there.

If ice has indeed accumulated in the icy shadows, and if it is accessible, future astronauts will be able to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. Ice would provide air, water and even rocket fuel, assuming the infrastructure to extract it is viable with affordable technology.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carrying a South Korean probe designed to map the moon's surface and observe permanently shadowed craters.  Presumed ice deposits could provide a source of water, air and rocket fuel for future astronauts.  / Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carrying a South Korean probe designed to map the moon’s surface and observe permanently shadowed craters. Presumed ice deposits could provide a source of water, air and rocket fuel for future astronauts. / Credit: William Harwood/CBS News

This is not yet known, but NASA’s Artemis program is targeting shadowy craters near the moon’s south pole, with periodic flights to the surface beginning in 2025 or 2026, to discover and test life support and other systems needed for eventual flights to Mars.

In addition to exploring potential landing sites, KPLO will also measure the radiation environment, characterize lunar soil constituents, and test communications equipment for what amounts to a sort of interplanetary Internet capability.

The Korea Pathfinder lunar orbiter during final assembly.  / Credit: Korea Aerospace Research Institute

The Korea Pathfinder lunar orbiter during final assembly. / Credit: Korea Aerospace Research Institute

“The KPLO mission comprises the first phase of South Korea’s lunar exploration program,” writes the nonprofit Planetary Society. “In the second phase, they plan to launch another lunar orbiter, a lander and a rover.”

The KPLO mission got off to a perfect start on Thursday with a liftoff at 7:08 pm EDT from platform 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The Falcon 9 rocket, using a recycled first stage that was making its sixth flight, put on an attractive show in the early evening, arcing eastward over the Atlantic Ocean and quickly disappearing from view.

The Korean lunar probe is released from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to fly on its own.  If all goes well, the spacecraft will enter lunar orbit in mid-December.  / Credit: SpaceX

The Korean lunar probe is released from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to fly on its own. If all goes well, the spacecraft will enter lunar orbit in mid-December. / Credit: SpaceX

Forty minutes after launch, after two bursts of the rocket’s second stage engine, the 1,500-pound KPLO spacecraft was cleared to fly on its own along a fuel-efficient ballistic trajectory. If all goes well, the probe will end up in a 60-mile-high circular orbit around the moon in mid-December.

SpaceX’s launch came just 12 and a half hours after a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket propelled a Space Force missile early warning satellite into orbit from nearby Block 41. It was the shortest interval between two space missions over Florida since 1967, according to Spaceflight Now.

The KPLO launch was the 34th from the “Space Coast” so far this year, setting another record that will be broken with each subsequent launch. SpaceX alone is responsible for 27 of these flights in Florida. The other seven include five Atlas 5s and two “Venture-class” Astra rockets.

Sixty or more Florida releases are expected by the end of the year.

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