A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space Thursday evening and sent a South Korean science probe on its way to the moon for an ambitious mission to help look for ice deposits 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 features an ultra-sensitive NASA camera known as “ShadowCam” that’s designed to peer into those dark craters to help scientists see what’s actually there.
If ice has, in fact, accumulated in the icy shadows, and if it’s accessible, future astronauts might be able to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. Ice would provide air, water and even rocket fuel, assuming the infrastructure to extract it is feasible with affordable technology.
That’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 starting in 2025 or 2026, to find out, and to test life support and other systems needed for eventual flights to Mars.
Along with scouting out potential landing sites, KPLO will also measure the radiation environment, characterize the constituents of the lunar soil and test communications equipment for what amounts to a sort of interplanetary internet capability.
“The KPLO mission comprises the first phase of South Korea’s lunar exploration program,” writes the nonprofit 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 a 7:08 p.m. EDT liftoff from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
The Falcon 9 rocket, using a recycled first stage that was making its sixth flight, put on an eye-catching early evening show, arcing away to the east over the Atlantic Ocean, and quickly disappearing 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, the probe will end up in a 60-mile-high circular orbit around the moon by mid-December.
The SpaceX launch came just 12 ½ hours after a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket boosted a Space Force missile early warning satellite into orbit from nearby pad 41. It was the shortest interval between two Florida space missions since 1967, according to Spaceflight Now.
The KPLO launch was the 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 of those Florida flights. The other seven include five Atlas 5s and two Astra “Venture-class” rockets.
Sixty or more Florida launches are expected by the end of the year.