South Korea enters lunar orbit

The Danuri spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Friday, December 16, after a four-month journey in space. This mission marks the beginning of South Korea’s deep space exploration initiative. It aims to probe permanently shadowed lunar regions to look for evidence of ice deposits.

A first for South Korea

Korea’s Danuri Orbiter, also known as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), was launched into space from Florida on August 4 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Its instruments include a magnetometer, a gamma spectrometer and three cameras. One of them, provided by NASA, will be able to capture the few photons that bounce in the permanently shadowed craters of the moon’s south pole to look for traces of water. This raw material can be converted to multiple uses by future visiting astronauts. Its main scientific mission is planned for a period of one year.

After leaving Cape Canaveral, Danuri took off on a runway ballistic moon transfer. She first took him to the Sun before sending him back to the Moon. This type of journey takes longer, but does not require firing a large engine to slow the spacecraft as it approaches the Moon.

The deployment maneuver was successfully carried out on 16 December. Firing small thrusters for thirteen minutes reduced Danuri’s speed by approx 8,000 km/h to 7,500 km/h. From then on, the probe became a real lunar orbiter.

Danuri now orbits the Moon in an elliptical orbit every 12.3 hours, with a perigee of 109 kilometers and an apogee of 8,920 kilometers. It’s only temporary. The spacecraft still needs to complete four more propulsion maneuvers before Dec. 28 to place itself in a low-altitude circular orbit. Danuri will then pass about a hundred kilometers from the moon’s surface.

Illustration of the Danuri probe. Credits: Korea Institute for Aerospace Research

Big ambitions

Until now, South Korea had never ventured beyond low Earth orbit. The Danuri mission therefore marks the beginning of the country’s deep space exploration initiative. And that’s just the beginning. A few days ago, the South Korean leader committed to landing a robotic spacecraft on the Moon in 2032. There would also be talk of landing on Mars in the 2040s.

To achieve the ambitious goals, the South Korean president has pledged to double the country’s space development budget over the next five years and to inject at least 100 trillion won (i.e. about 75 billion euros) in the space sector in 2045. Part of this money will be aimed at continuing the development of a new generation of rocket: KSLV-3. It will be a two-stage vehicle capable of carrying up to seven tons of payload in sun-synchronous orbit, 3.7 tons in geostationary orbit and 1.8 tons in Earth-Moon orbit. In parallel, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) is working on the development of more powerful engines (100 tons of pressure) powered by petroleum.

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