A South Korean spacecraft scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral to the moon next week has been loaded with the fuel it needs to maneuver into low-altitude lunar orbit for imaging and scientific observations.
The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, or KPLO, is scheduled to launch next Thursday, August 23 at 19:08 EDT (2308 GMT). 4, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Mission managers said earlier this week the launch has been delayed by two days to give SpaceX time to complete additional work on the Falcon 9 rocket.
Technicians and engineers working at SpaceX’s payload processing facility recently completed refueling the Korean lunar probe after the spacecraft was delivered to Cape Canaveral from South Korea on July 6.
The spacecraft was loaded with hydrazine fuel in SpaceX’s clean room. South Korean engineers who traveled to the launch site on the KPLO spacecraft also conducted final tests on the probe, South Korea’s first mission to the moon and first ventures into space exploration.
The 1,495-pound (678-kilogram) spacecraft was to be encapsulated in the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing after refueling. The aeroshell protects the spacecraft during the final stages of launch preparations and during the first few minutes of launch itself.
Then, SpaceX will transport the payload module from the processing facility to the Falcon 9 rocket hangar a few miles away, where ground crews will connect the spacecraft to the Falcon 9 upper stage in the rocket’s nose cone.
The entire rocket is then rolled out and lifted vertically on Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The KPLO mission is one of two launches currently scheduled for next Thursday at the Florida Cosmodrome. A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying a US military satellite is scheduled to lift off about 12.5 hours ahead of the KPLO mission’s Falcon 9 rocket.
Part of the purpose of the KPLO mission is in its name. The mission is a precursor, or precursor, to South Korea’s future space exploration ambitions, which include a robotic landing on the moon in the early 2030s. South Korea has also joined the NASA-led Artemis Accord and could contribute to the US space agency’s program to explore the human moon.
The KPLO mission also goes by the name Danuri, a combination of the words “dal” and “nurida” in Korean, meaning “enjoying the moon.”
“The basic idea of this mission is technology development and demonstration,” said Eunhyeuk Kim of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute. “We also hope to get some useful data about the lunar surface with the scientific instruments.”
The mission carries six science instruments and technology demonstration payloads.
KPLO will test a new South Korean spacecraft platform designed for space operations, along with new communications, control and navigation capabilities, including validation of an “interplanetary internet” connection using a fault-tolerant network.
The mission’s science objectives include mapping the lunar surface to help select future landing sites, surveying resources such as water ice on the moon, and studying the radiation environment near the moon.
The US$180 million (233.3 billion won) mission will launch to the moon in a low-power, fuel-efficient lunar ballistic transfer orbit, a path planned by NASA’s small CAPSTONE spacecraft, a tech demo mission that launched last month on a Rocket Lab, has pioneered the mission and is scheduled to slip into orbit around the moon in November.
If KPLO launches in the first week of August, its arrival date on the Moon is set for December 16th. The Falcon 9 will propel the spacecraft on a trajectory that will take it near the L1 Lagrange point, a near-gravitationally stable location a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth’s dayside, about four times farther than the moon.
Gravitational forces will naturally pull the spacecraft back to Earth and the Moon, where the Korean probe will be captured in orbit on December 16. A series of propulsion maneuvers using the spacecraft’s thrusters will steer KPLO into a low-altitude circular orbit approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the lunar surface by New Year’s Eve.
After a month of commissioning and testing, the spacecraft’s year-long primary science mission should begin around February. 1. If the orbiter has enough fuel, mission managers could consider an expanded mission beginning in 2024, Kim said.
One of the payloads on the KPLO or Danuri mission is a US-built instrument called the ShadowCam.
Derived from the main camera on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, ShadowCam will peer into dark craters near the lunar poles, where previous missions have found evidence of water ice deposits. The NASA-funded ShadowCam instrument is 100 times more sensitive than LRO’s camera, allowing it to use reflected light to collect high-resolution, high-signal-to-noise images of the interior of increasingly dark craters.
NASA also provides tracking and communications support for the KPLO mission through its Deep Space Network antennas in California, Spain and Australia. KARI, the South Korean space agency, also has its own deep space communications antenna, but it doesn’t provide the continuous coverage of NASA’s worldwide network.
South Korea began developing the KPLO mission in 2016 for a planned launch in 2020, but officials delayed the due mission after the spacecraft outgrew its original launch weight and engineers needed more time to complete detailed design work.
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