South Korea launches first moon spacecraft

Source: Associated Press

South Korea joined the stampede to the moon on Friday with the launch of a lunar orbiter that will scout out future landing spots.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter.

The satellite, launched by SpaceX and due to arrive in December, is taking a long, roundabout path to conserve fuel.

If successful, it will join spacecraft from the US and India already operating around the moon, and a Chinese rover exploring the moon’s far side.

READ MORE: Debris from Chinese rocket crash in Pacific Ocean

India, Russia and Japan have new moon missions launching over the next few years, as do a slew of private companies, with NASA next up with the August debut of its mega moon rocket.

South Korea’s US$180 million (NZ$286 million) mission — the country’s first step in lunar exploration — features a boxy, solar-powered satellite designed to skim just 100 kilometres above the lunar surface. Scientists expect to collect geologic and other data for at least a year from this low polar orbit.

It is South Korea’s second shot at space in six weeks.

In June, South Korea successfully launched a package of satellites into orbit around Earth for the first time, after the previous first attempt last fall fizzled when the test satellite failed to reach orbit.

In May, South Korea joined a NASA-led coalition to explore the moon with astronauts in the coming years and decades. NASA is targeting the end of this month for the first launch of its Artemis programme. The goal is to send an empty crew capsule around the moon and back to test the systems before a crew climbs aboard in two years.

South Korea joined the stampede to the moon on Thursday.

Danuri — Korean for “enjoy the moon" — is carrying six science instruments, including a camera for NASA. It's designed to peer into the permanently shadowed, ice-filled craters at the lunar poles.

South Korea plans to land its own spacecraft, a robotic probe, on the moon by 2030.

“Danuri is just the beginning,” Sang-Ryool Lee, president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, said in the SpaceX launch webcast.