A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space on Thursday evening and sent a South Korean science probe on its way to the Moon for an ambitious mission to help freeze ice 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 carries a hyper-sensitive NASA camera known as a “Shadowcam” designed to help scientists designed to look into those dark craters. See what’s really there.
If the ice has, in fact, accumulated in the icy shadow, and if it is accessible, future astronauts may be able to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. The ice would provide air, water and even rocket fuel, assuming the infrastructure to extract it is feasible with cheap technology.
It’s not yet known, but NASA’s Artemis program is targeting shadowed craters near the Moon’s south pole, with periodic flights to the surface beginning in 2025 or 2026 to find out, and life support and To test other systems needed for final flights to Mars.
As well as weeding out potential landing sites, KPLO will also measure the radiation environment, characterize the components of the lunar soil and test communications equipment to see what kind of interplanetary Internet capability it has.
“The KPLO mission comprises the first phase of South Korea’s lunar exploration program,” writes the non-profit 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 picture-perfect start Thursday with liftoff at 7:08 p.m. EDT from Pad 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 a fascinating evening show, soaring east over the Atlantic Ocean, and quickly disappeared from view.
Forty minutes after launch, after two firings of the rocket’s second-stage engine, the 1,500-pound KPLO spacecraft was released to fly on its own along a fuel-efficient ballistic trajectory. If all goes well, by mid-December the probe will end up in a 60-mile-high circular orbit around the Moon.
SpaceX’s launch came just 12 hours after a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket boosted a Space Force missile early warning satellite into orbit from nearby Pad 41. According to Spaceflight Now, it was the shortest interval between two Florida space missions since 1967.
KPLO’s launch was 34th from the “space coast” so far this year, setting another record that will be broken with every subsequent launch. SpaceX alone is responsible for 27 flights to Florida. The other seven include five Atlas 5s and two Astra “Venture-class” rockets.
Sixty or more launches are expected in Florida by the end of the year.