South Korea is on its way to the moon.
Last night, the country launched its first-ever lunar mission — in fact, its very first mission beyond low Earth orbit. Formerly called the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), the mission is now operated by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) and is now called Danuri, a play on the Korean words for “moon” and “enjoy.” Its primary goal is to test the technology of South Korea’s lunar spacecraft before attempting to land on the surface, tentatively by 2030 if all goes well.
Danuri was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Aug. 4 at 7:08 PM EDT.
The spacecraft is now on a very circuitous route to the moon. It will first fly to the sun before returning to its destination and arriving in orbit around the moon in mid-December. Taking this longer route, known as a ballistic lunar transfer, uses gravitational support from the sun to make the trip more economical.
When Danuri arrives at the moon, stationed in a 100-mile orbit, it will conduct research with its six scientific instruments: a magnetometer, a gamma-ray spectrometer, an experimental communications system and three cameras, including one designed by NASA that is sensitive enough to be in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon, which may contain water ice.
Should the mission succeed, South Korea will become the eighth political body to conduct a moon mission, along with the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, Japan, India, Luxembourg and the European Union. Most of those missions were flybys and orbiters, plus a handful of robot landings and just six human landings.
It’s a busy year for the moon. NASA recently launched its CAPSTONE mission and its Artemis I mission will launch later this month. It is planned that Russia will return to the moon for the first time since 1976 with its Luna-25 lander, which will be launched at the end of this year. And several private organizations are tied to the moon, including American companies Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, which will fly under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, as well as Japanese company ispace, which will transport a rover built by the United Arab Emirates.