SpaceX launches Danuri, the first Korean lunar orbiter. Photo credit: SpaceX, Aug 4, 2022

South Korea Joins the Space Race

Lunar Orbiter, Danuri, Propels Korea’s First Deep Space Mission

(Cape Canaveral, FL) South Korea’s first deep space exploration mission launched on Aug. 4 with Danuri, a lunar orbiter, riding atop SpaceX’s rocket, Falcon 9. 

When Danuri begins its lunar orbit, South Korea will join an elite group of only seven political entities that have successfully conducted lunar missions– in chronological order: the USSR, the United States, Japan, the European Space Agency, China, India and Luxembourg. (The US remains the only country to have successfully landed an astronaut on the moon and Isreal attempted an unmanned lunar landing but crashed in 2019.)

“The reason why the world’s sights are on the Moon once again is that they can secure natural resources from the Moon along with the possibility of utilizing the satellite as a stopover site for the deep space exploration of Mars, etc,” said the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) in a statement.

Korea’s deep space mission is expected to start its yearlong lunar orbit in mid-December due to a very circuitous flight route. Called a lunar ballistic transfer, this flight path utilizes the Earth’s, Moon’s and Sun’s gravitational forces to conserve fuel. 

Danuri will orbit the moon’s surface to collect scientific data, test space internet technology and search for optimal landing sites for future lunar missions noted KARI.

Actual launch starts at the 21:50 mark.

According to KARI, 72% of South Koreans approve of lunar explorations. KARI also estimates that successful lunar missions will reap “KRW 3.8 trillion of tangible/intangible economic value, which is going to be 5 times of more value than the resources invested.” The Danuri portion of this investment was $180 million (or 235 billion won).

Onboard the Danuri is NASA technology (ShadowCam) that could potentially locate water ice that might be hidden by lunar craters that are always in shadow; this ice would be vital to future astronaut-led lunar exploration. “Those craters are thought to harbor lots of water ice but the true extent and accesseibility of that key resource are not well understood,” reported Mike Wall in Space.com.

With the exception of ShadowCam, all other technology aboard Danuri was engineered and manufactured in Korea. That homegrown technology will study the moon’s magnetic field, map out terrain and pinpoint landing spots for future lunar missions, including a Korean moon landing by 2030.

KARI-NASA cooperation with Danuri is offshoot of Korea joining the Artemis Accords (signed by 20 countries). Led by NASA, the Artemis program plans to to establish a permanant astronaut presence on the moon by 2030 and hopes to land on Mars by 2040.

Formerly called the KPLO (Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter), the name Danuri was chosen in a nationwide contest. “Danuri” is the combination of dal, “moon” and nuri, “enjoy”. The winning entry was fittingly submitted by Ha Tae-hyun, a doctoral student at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

“With over 60,000 people (participating in the naming contest), we have a meaningful name in Danuri. We have come this far 15 years after the first mention of a lunar probe,” said Lee Sang-ryool, president of KARI.

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