South Korea launches first lunar mission

Tuesday August 2nd at 7:04 pm E.T. from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station

KPLO or the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter has just set off on a journey to the Moon. This is South Koreas first attempt of a lunar mission and was developed and managed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute. If all goes successfully the craft will orbit the Moon for one year, carrying an array of experiments developed by South Korea and one built by the United States.

Photo by: Kyle Montgomery – NHS

The main objectives are to develop indigenous lunar exploration technologies, to demonstrate a space internet and conduct scientific investigations of the lunar environment, topography, and resources, as well as identifying potential landing sites for future missions. Utilizing a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket the launch will start into a 300km Earth orbit, followed by a translunar injection burn and then lunar transfer phase which will have it reach a lunar orbit in mid-December. From there it will circularize to a 100km nominal polar orbit of the Moon where it will conduct those scientific explorations.

The spacecraft itself has a cubic shape with twin solar panel wings and a parabolic antenna which is mounted on a boom. The total mass is 550kg. Communications are through S-band and X-band systems with the 760W power needed provided through those twin solar panels and rechargeable batteries. The Spacecraft sports two cameras, one of which that will collect images of the Moon’s surface at a high resolution of 2.5 meters per pixel. The other, a wide angle polarimetric camera which will determine the type of surface materials based on the way light reflects and scatters off them. The idea is to better understand the Moon’s surface composition and understand further the nature of its volcanic deposits.

Also onboard is a gamma-ray spectrometer, which will look at highly energetic gamma rays that are released from the Moon. These readings will study the energy levels of the rays, which a linked to the elements they produce, allowing scientists to determine the elemental make up of specific Moon materials. Combined with the polarimetric camera, KPLO will hopefully help us better understand the Moon’s mineral composition and how its terrain has evolved of the last four billion years.

Photo by: Matt Cutshall – NHS

KPLO has two more scientific instruments in its arsenal, the first of this, built in South Korea, is a magnetometer. The Moon has lost its global field, which means it does not have localized magnetic features such as “Swirls”. Though it does have weak magnetic fields, and these are what the magnetometer will study from its orbit. This will help us understand the extent of protection these fields offer from harmful space radiation, and possible give us hints to what the Moon’s past was like as well.

The final instrument, ShadowCam, is an ultrasensitive camera provided by NASA to see inside permanently shadowed areas of the Moon. The idea is that this instrument will provide critical data about the terrain and water in these shadow regions to help plan future crewed and robotic missions.

Flying the mission today was Falcon 9 B1052, a previously converted Falcon Heavy side booster that has now flown four times as a dedicated Falcon 9. That’s six trips total to space and back with today’s KPLO launch.