Launch of South Korean lunar orbiter delayed to 2022

The moon as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The launch of South Korea’s first moon orbiter has been delayed from December 2020 until July 2022 after the mission encountered technical issues during development, officials recently announced.

The design of the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, or KPLO, has grown beyond its original launch weight, and engineers need more time to complete the spacecraft, South Korea’s space agency announced Sept. 10.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute, or KARI, said the country’s first mission to another planetary body suffered from “technical limitations” after teams completed the project’s preliminary design review in 2017.

The mission is now in the detailed design phase, and engineers are working with test models of the orbiter’s hardware before assembling the KPLO spacecraft itself.

The KPLO mission will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.

An indigenous South Korean rocket named the KSLV 2 is scheduled for its first orbital launch in 2021, and KARI plans to loft future space missions, including an eventual lunar lander, on South Korea’s own launch vehicles.

The robotic orbiter will carry a suite of four South Korean scientific instruments to image the moon and help select candidate landing sites for a future South Korean lunar mission. The orbiter will also measure the moon’s weak magnetic field, which scientists believe originates in the lunar crust, and map the moon’s elemental composition.

A U.S.-built instrument named ShadowCam will also fly on the South Korean lunar orbiter.

Derived from the main camera on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, ShadowCam will peer inside dark craters near the moons poles, where previous missions detected evidence of water ice deposits. The NASA-funded ShadowCam instrument is hundreds of times more sensitive than LRO’s camera, allowing it to collect high-resolution, high signal-to-noise imagery of the insides of always-dark craters using reflected light.



A design chart showing the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter. Credit: KARI

ShadowCam will look for seasonal changes inside the dark craters, called permanently shadowed regions, and map the distribution of boulders. Scientists will combine imagery from ShadowCam and the narrow-angle camera on LRO to create maps inside and outside the permanently shadowed craters, scientists said.

The ShadowCam instrument uses the same basic telescope and much of the same electronics as LRO’s camera. But ShadowCam will have an imaging sensor that is hundreds of times more sensitive than LRO’s.

Mark Robinson, ShadowCam’s principal investigator from Arizona State University, said in an email Friday that the instrument’s development is proceeding as expected. The instrument’s electronics are now in assembly, and the telescope should be finished by end of October, Robinson said.

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