The launch of South Korea’s first lunar mission is only a week away.
The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, or KPLO for short, is set to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket next Tuesday (August 2). The mission is seen as the first step in South Korea’s ambitious deep-space program, which also includes a robotic landing on the moon by 2030 and an asteroid sample return mission.
In May this year, KPLO was officially named “Danuri”, a combination of two Korean words that mean “moon” and “enjoy”.
The test lunar orbiter will carry a total of six payloads. Five were developed by Korean universities and research organizations, including the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), and the other by NASA.
The six experiments are the Lunar Terrain Imager (LUTI), the Wide Angle Polarimetric Camera (PolCam), a Magnetometer called KMAG, a Gamma Ray Spectrometer known as KGRS, the Tolerant Network Experiment Payload to Disturbances (DTNPL) and a NASA-funded high-sensitivity camera called ShadowCam.
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Danuri will circle the moon for at least a year, if all goes as planned. The main tasks of the orbiter will be to measure the magnetic force above the surface of the moon and to assess lunar resources such as water ice, uranium, helium-3, silicon and aluminum, as well as to create a topographic map to help choose future lunar landing points.
It will take some time for the probe to get to the moon after its Falcon 9 launch; Danuri will use a ballistic lunar transfer pathway, eventually arriving in lunar orbit in mid-December.
KARI, headquartered in Daejeon, provided NASA with about 33 pounds (15 kilograms) of payload mass on the orbiter.
In September 2016, NASA issued a solicitation seeking scientific instruments designed to improve knowledge of the distribution of volatile substances such as water, including the movement of these resources to permanently shadowed lunar regions (PSR ) and how they are trapped there.
The result was NASA’s selection of ShadowCam, an instrument developed by Arizona State University and San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems. ShadowCam will acquire images of shadow regions of the moon using a high-resolution camera, telescope, and highly sensitive sensors.
The instrument’s optical camera is based on NASA’s onboard Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) Lunar reconnaissance orbiter (LRO). NAC has been producing images of the moon for over 13 years now, but KPLO’s new camera is much more sensitive.
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The shadow knows
ShadowCam will collect high-resolution images of PSR while flying about 100 kilometers above the moon’s surface for about a year, said Prasun Mahanti, assistant principal investigator for ShadowCam at Arizona State University in Tempe.
“PSRs typically exist in the lower parts of host craters and topographic depressions where sunlight never reaches, making these regions extremely cold and therefore favorable places where volatile species, e.g. water, methane and ammonia, can remain trapped (cold traps) for long geological periods,” Mahanti told Space.com.
ShadowCam will help to search frozen water in polar craters by mapping reflectance in PSRs, Mahanti said. PSRs are illuminated only indirectly, by light reflected from nearby topographic features.
This “secondary enlightenment” is very weak, Mahanti said. But ShadowCam is optimized for imaging in deficient lighting conditions, being more than 200 times more sensitive than LRO’s NAC (which is one of the two cameras that make up the old orbiter’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera system , or LROC).
“Like LROC NAC, which changed our understanding of the moon by collecting unprecedented amounts of high-resolution lunar images, ShadowCam will peer into deeply shadowed areas of the moon to provide the first-ever high-resolution look at shadowed lunar regions in permanence,” says Mahanti.
“It’s a new dataset that we don’t have,” said Ben Bussey, ShadowCam co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
“The plan is to map both poles throughout the year,” he said. “In doing so, we can also look for possible seasonal variations in some of these signatures, if any of the volatiles are transient in any way.”
Bussey told Space.com that ShadowCam won’t just be looking for water evidence. Another goal is to identify hazards and determine traffic inside PSRs, which could help mission planners organize hikes in and out of these features by future rovers.
“The more precursor data we have on these challenging regions, the more effective we will be in our exploration,” Bussey said. “Permanently shaded regions will never be easy.”
ShadowCam’s science team enjoyed working with their Korean colleagues, Bussey said. The Danuri team has a very impressive suite of payloads on the country’s first lunar orbiter, he said.
As always, the moon is looming. And as more nations unveil more details about Earth’s closest neighbor, the more viable it becomes as a target of sustained human exploration.
Leonard David is the author of the book “Moon Rush: The New Space Race”, published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime author for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).