Korean moon mission

The first South Korean lunar mission, Danuri, launched this week: People’s Dispatch

Representative image. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

South Korea is on track to launch its first Moon mission this week. The lunar probe has been named ‘Danuri’, which means enjoying the moon. It is expected to reach its destination in mid-December and will orbit for a year thereafter.

With an investment of 237 billion won (South Korea’s official currency and the equivalent of $180 million) and developed over six years, Danuri is generating excitement for scientists and researchers as the probe has been targeted to reveal insights into crucial aspects of the moon including ancient magnetism and dust dispersion over its surface. Also known as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, scientists hope the probe will shed light on hidden water sources along with ice near the poles, especially in the areas that remain permanently cold and dark.

Astronauts from South Korea expect the country’s first lunar mission to act as a catalyst for more ambitious projects in the country in the future. Kyeong-ja Kim, principal investigator of a Danuri instrument, a γ-ray spectrometer and a planetary geoscientist at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources in Daejeon, expressed his hopes for the mission in a statement, saying, “Success for Danuri will ensure future planetary exploration. Everyone is so happy and excited.”

The South Korean probe Danuri was brought to Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA, and is being prepared to be flown beyond Earth’s orbit on August 5. Danuri will be placed in a Falcon 9 rocket to be removed from Earth’s orbit and headed towards its destination. One hour after launch, the 678-kilogram spacecraft will detach from the rocket, and from here on, KARI (Korea Aerospace Research Institute) will take control of it. The spacecraft has solar panels and a satellite dish.

Eunhyeuk Kim, the project scientist for the mission at KARI in Daejeon, said: “The spacecraft is ready for launch.” Expressing the team’s warnings, Kim said: “Until the time of launch, we will check all systems repeatedly.”

Rachel Klima, a planetary geologist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and part of the science team for the mission, commented, “It’s just so cool to see more and more countries sending up their orbiters and adding to the global understanding of what happens on the moon.”

Danuri will have five scientific instruments, among which the most exciting is PolCam, which will be the first camera to scan the lunar surface with polarized light. PolCam will record how light is reflected off the moon’s surface, and scientists expect it will reveal the size and density of dust grains.

“This could help scientists study unusual objects like the tiny porous towers of dust called fairy castle structures,” commented Rachel Klima.

Another highly sensitive camera from NASA, the ShadowCam, will capture images of the moon’s permanently shadowed areas. These regions never receive sunlight.

“Since shortly after the moon formed, volatile materials such as water from comets have bounced off its surface and become trapped in these very cold regions. We have billions of years of the solar system’s history locked in the layers of these cold traps. By giving scientists a picture of the terrain in these regions and identify brighter regions that may be ice deposits, ShadowCam will be able to inform future landing missions to study that history, Klima added.

Danuri will also have a magnetometer along with the optical instruments, which scientists believe could help reveal crucial aspects of the moon’s magnetism. The Moon’s surface shows strong magnetic fields, suggesting that the Moon’s core has generated a magnetic field as strong as Earth’s via a process known as Dynamo.

Scientists are still puzzled by the moon’s magnetic phenomena. The Moon’s core is much smaller and proportionally far from the surface compared to Earth. The process by which the lunar core could have sustained such a strong dynamo remains elusive. The Korean mission may reveal something about this, experts believe.

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