A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off into space Thursday evening and sent a South Korean science probe on its way to the moon on an ambitious mission to help search for ice deposits in permanently shaded polar craters.
Equipped with four Korean instruments – two cameras, a gamma-ray spectrometer and a magnetometer – the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) spacecraft also features a NASA ultra-sensitive camera known as the “ShadowCam” which is designed to delve deeper into those dark craters to help scientists. See what’s actually there.
If the ice did in fact accumulate in the icy shadows, and if it were accessible, future astronauts might be able to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. The ice will provide air, water, and even rocket fuel, assuming the infrastructure to extract it is possible with affordable technology.
That’s not yet known, but NASA’s Artemis program is targeting shaded craters near the moon’s south pole, with periodic flights to the surface beginning in 2025 or 2026, to discover and test life support systems and other systems needed for the final flights to Mars.
Besides exploring potential landing sites, KPLO will also measure the radioactive environment, characterize lunar soil components and test communications equipment for what amounts to some sort of interplanetary internet capability.
“The KPLO mission consists of the first phase of South Korea’s lunar exploration program,” the nonprofit Planetary Society wrote. “In the second stage, they plan to launch another lunar orbiter, a lander and a rover.”
The KPLO mission got off to a picture-perfect start Thursday with 7:08 p.m. EDT from Platform 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
The Falcon 9 rocket, using a recycled first stage making its sixth flight, made an eye-catching display in the early evening as it blasted away to the east over the Atlantic, and soon disappeared from view.
Forty minutes into the launch, after two launches of the rocket’s second-stage engine, the 1,500-pound KPLO spacecraft was launched to fly alone along a fuel-efficient ballistic trajectory. If all goes well, the probe will end up in a 60-mile-high circular orbit around the moon by mid-December.
The SpaceX launch came just 12 hours after the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 booster boosted the Space Force rocket’s early warning satellite into orbit from a nearby platform 41. It was the shortest amount of time between two space missions in Florida since 1967, according to Spaceflight Now .
KPLO’s launch was the 34th “Space Coast” launch so far this year, setting another record that will be broken with every subsequent launch. SpaceX alone is responsible for 27 of those flights to Florida. The other seven missiles include five Atlas 5s and two Astra “Venture-class” missiles.
Sixty or more are expected to be launched from Florida by the end of the year.