SpaceX Launches South Korea’s First Moon Mission, Looks Ahead to Future Lunar Voyages

The B1052 core, making its sixth flight, powers smoothly into the evening sky. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

SpaceX has successfully launched its first mission to the Moon, following Thursday evening’s 7:08 p.m. EDT liftoff of a Falcon 9 from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. Aboard the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket—a seasoned booster which had already logged five prior launches, including two outings in 2019 as a Falcon Heavy side-booster—was the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO), South Korea’s inaugural voyage to the Moon. Also known as “Danuri”, a portmanteau of two Korean words for “Moon” and “enjoy”, KPLO’s six scientific instruments will spend up to a full year surveying lunar resources and compiling topographical maps in support of the identification of future landing sites.

On Thursday, 4 August, SpaceX successfully launched South Korea’s first mission to lunar distance and its own first flight to the Moon. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Thursday’s launch was the second SpaceX flight on behalf of South Korea, following the October 2017 mission of the 7,700-pound (3,500-kilogram) KoreaSat-5A geostationary communications satellite. But it also marked the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization’s first flight to lunar distance, kicking off a list of missions over the next few years to deliver orbiters and landers on behalf of the United States, Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), including the Power and Propulsion Module (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) for the Moon-circling Gateway.

KPLO was originally scheduled to fly in December 2020 but fell foul to extensive delays following its 2017 Preliminary Design Review (PDR). The spacecraft grew rapidly beyond its mandated 1,200-pound (550-kilogram) weight margin, eventually maxing-out at nearly 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms). In September 2019, it was announced that KPLO’s launch would correspondingly slip by at least 18 months to No Earlier Than (NET) July 2022 for necessary modifications to the mission design.

South Korea’s KPLO spacecraft vanishes into the inky blackness of space. The Ballistic Lunar Transfer (BLT) will produce a rendezvous with the Moon in mid-December. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The spacecraft finally arrived at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station early last month, where it was put through a final processing regime, including fueling, ahead of encapsulation in its bullet-like Falcon 9 payload fairing. SpaceX was selected back in December 2017 to launch this mission, reportedly beating Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

Just last week, SpaceX announced an additional couple of days of delay from the beginning of August to no sooner than the evening of the 4th for additional checks of the Falcon 9 booster. And the vehicle supporting tonight’s flight was B1052, which entered service back in April 2019 as a side-booster for the first “operational” Falcon Heavy mission, which lofted Saudi Arabia’s heavyweight Arabsat-6A communications satellite.

B1052 approaches the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), for an on-point touchdown. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Two months later, in June 2019, it flew again on the Heavy’s first launch in the hours of darkness, to lift the highly complex Space Test Program (STP)-2 mission. This comprised a smorgasbord of 24 payloads on behalf of U.S. Government, military and civilian customers into several different orbital locations.

Having smoothly wrapped up her first two flights with on-point touchdowns on the Cape Canaveral landing pad, B1052 was reconfigured from a Falcon Heavy side-booster into a “single-stick” Falcon 9. This metamorphosis saw her launch again in February 2022 to deliver the second member of a four-strong fleet of COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation (CSG-2) Earth-imaging satellites for the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

B1052 and sister B1053 are seen here alighting at Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2 in April 2019, following their first Falcon Heavy launch. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/

In the days prior to her CSG-2 launch, B1052 was put through a Static Fire Test, cementing her new-found credentials as a single-stick Falcon 9. Two further flights followed in quick succession, as B1052 boosted a total of 101 Starlink internet communications satellites into low-Earth orbit in March and May.

Both missions terminated with landings on the deck of SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). So too did tonight’s launch of KPLO. The ASDS “Just Read the Instructions”, put to sea out of Port Canaveral last Sunday, bound for a position about 400 miles (640 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

B1052 first flew in April 2019 as one of two side-boosters on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy mission to launch the Arabsat-6A communications satellite. Video Credit: AmericaSpace

Following the successful touchdown of B1052 on the deck of JRTI, about nine minutes after launch, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Falcon 9’s second stage completed a smooth burn to deliver KPLO on the first step of its voyage to lunar distance. At 40 minutes after launch, the spacecraft separated from the booster.

With the launch safely concluded, South Korea’s first voyage to the Moon is formally underway. Managed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), the cube-shaped KPLO spacecraft will reach lunar orbit in mid-December after a travel time of around 4.5 months. The mission will adopt a Ballistic Lunar Transfer (BLT) trajectory, which minimizes energy requirements and potentially saves up to 25 percent of propellant expenditure.

B1052 flew a second time as a Falcon Heavy side-booster in June 2019. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

After being captured into an elliptical lunar orbit, KPLO will circularize its orbital parameters to a nominal polar orbit at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) for about a year of scientific observations. If the mission is approved for an “extended” phase of operations, it will descend to an altitude below 43 miles (70 kilometers).

Six scientific instruments, weighing about 88 pounds (40 kilograms), are aboard KPLO. Five of them have been provided by KARI. The Lunar Terrain Imager (LUTI) will examine potential landing sites for future missions at spatial resolutions of less than 16 feet (5 meters), whilst the Wide-Angle Polarimetric Camera (PolCam) will investigate the entire lunar surface, save for the poles.

Reconfigured as a “single-stick” Falcon 9, B1052 flew her third mission in February 2022. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Highly sensitive sensors aboard the KPLO Magnetometer (KMAG) will measure the magnetic strength of the lunar environment. And the KPLO Gamma Ray Spectrometer (PGRS) will investigate lunar resources, including ices, rare elements and minerals, as well as mapping their respective spatial distribution.

The Disruption Tolerant Network experiment (DTNPL) seeks to demonstrate space-based communications using Disruption Tolerant Network (DTN) technologies, whilst NASA’s highly sensitive ShadowCam will acquire high-resolution optical imagery of the Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) of the lunar poles, thought to contain enormous ice deposits. ShadowCam will map the reflectance qualities of these PSRs each month to discern seasonal changes and examine the terrain within craters, including the distribution of boulders.

Schematic showing the Ballistic Lunar Transfer (BLT) profile which will deliver South Korea’s Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) to the Moon in about 4.5 months, arriving in mid-December 2022. Image Credit: KARI

In March of last year, nine scientists from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Hawaii at Honolulu, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) in Laurel, Md., the University of California at Los Angeles, the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala., were selected to participate in the KPLO mission. Their research emphases range from the use of multispectral polarimetric data to distinguish and characterize suspected lunar pyroclastic deposits to examinations of the Moon’s magnetic field and from mineralogical prospecting to the modeling of lunar-ice deposits.

Tonight’s launch marks the first of several SpaceX missions to the Moon in the coming months. As early as November, another Falcon 9 will lift Japan’s Hakuto-R lunar lander—developed by Tokyo-based ispace, Inc.—and the UAE’s tiny Rashid rover, bound for a touchdown on the basalt-rich plain of Lacus Somniorum, the “Lake of Dreams”.

Video Credit: Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC)

Weighing a mere 22 pounds (10 kilograms), Rashid carries a pair of high-resolution cameras, a microscopic camera to image small surface details and a thermal imaging camera, together with a Langmuir probe to examine the Moon’s plasma composition and the composition of lunar dust. And measuring only 21 inches (53 centimeters) long, Rashid promises to be the smallest lunar rover ever deposited on the Moon.

Three Nova-3 landers, built by Intuitive Machines, will follow between 2022 and 2024, with the first (IM-1) set to fly a Falcon 9 in December. The Houston, Texas-based Intuitive Machines was initially selected by NASA in November 2018 as one of nine U.S. companies for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Video Credit: Intuitive Machines

In January 2020, NASA selected five experiments to fly on IM-1. A Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), provided by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Md., will deploy around eight small retroreflectors to precisely determine IM-1’s position on the lunar surface.

The Langley Research Center (LaRC) of Hampton, Va., will have its Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) aboard IM-1 to execute highly accurate velocity and range sensing during the lander’s descent to the surface. And the CubeSat-sized Lunar Node-1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN)-1 from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) of Huntsville, Ala., will demonstrate autonomous navigation technologies.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander will support three missions to the surface of the Moon in 2022-2024. Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Rounding out the IM-1 payload will be Langley’s Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS), which seeks to capture video and still imaging of the impingement of the lander’s exhaust plume on the surface. Finally, NASA-Goddard’s Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES) will investigate photoelectron sheath densities as part of efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of a future radio observatory on the surface of the Moon.

Looking ahead to 2023, another Falcon 9 will deliver the IM-2 lander to the Moon. The landing site for this mission, which was selected last fall, is the Shackleton Connecting Ridge, not far from Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole.

IM-2 mission configuration on Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander. The PRIME drill will scout for subsurface ice at the Shackleton Connecting Ridge, near the lunar south pole. Image Credit: Intuitive Machines

One notable payload aboard IM-2 is the NASA-financed Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment (PRIME), which will employ a drill and mass spectrometer to scout for the presence of ice just below the surface. Additionally, IM-2 will test Intuitive Machines’ MicroNova deployable “hopper” and evaluate a 4G/LTE communications network.

Late last year, Intuitive Machines was chosen by NASA to deliver its IM-3 payload to the Moon, with launch anticipated aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in 2024. Payloads aboard the Nova-C will seek to investigate the lunar magnetic field, plasma environment and properties of the surface regolith, as well as mobile robots to map the terrain in three dimensions.

Artist’s concept of the PPE/HALO combo in Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, sometime after November 2024. Image Credit: NASA

A laser retroreflector, called MoonLIGHT, will also ride IM-3 and its data will support investigations of relativity, the gravitational dynamics of the Earth-Moon system and the deep lunar interior. And a South Korean payload will examine the near-surface environment as the Moon passes in and out of Earth’s highly charged “magnetotail”.  

And no sooner than November 2024, a Falcon Heavy booster will lift the combined Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) to the Moon. This major component of the lunar-circling Gateway will be emplaced in a seven-day Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), sweeping past the lunar north pole as closely as 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) at “perilune” and as far as 43,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) over the lunar south pole at “apolune”. Contracts worth $331.8 million were signed by NASA and SpaceX in February of last year for its launch.

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