The Republic of Korea has been keen to demonstrate that it is in fact Asia's fourth-largest space power and ranks just behind China, Japan and India in terms of space ambitions and development.
With the launch of its first moon-bound probe, it has made it clear that although it is considered to be the world's tenth largest economy, it is one of the seven nations globally with the greatest interest in outer space. The South Korean scientific spacecraft is called Danuri, which in English means "enjoy the moon", weighs 678 kilos, is cube-shaped, measures 3.18 x 6.3 x 2.67 metres and, according to the Seoul government, cost 182 million dollars.
In a way, Korea has followed in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, which relied on Japan and its H-IIA rocket to send its first interplanetary probe, the Al Amal Mars spacecraft, to Mars. In the Korean case, it has chosen its great ally, the United States, and Danuri's liftoff took place late on 4 August from the Cape Canaveral launch complex in Florida. A Falcon 9 vector from US tycoon Elon Musk's SpaceX company was responsible for launching it en route.
The spacecraft took off on the same day that US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi arrived in Seoul to support the Asian country in maintaining a strong deterrent against North Korea and seeking its denuclearisation. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office on 10 May, had the opportunity to speak to Pelusi by phone, thanking him for his gesture and explaining that Danuri will serve "to boost Korea's space economy and scientific expertise".
If the probe succeeds in reaching lunar orbit, the Republic of Korea will become the seventh nation to explore the Moon in situ, as Russia, the United States, China, India, the European Space Agency and Japan have already done. But the South Korean mission is not an isolated initiative. "The first step of our national space exploration programme is the moon," says Science Minister Lee Jong-ho.
The president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), Professor Lee Sang-ryool, has confirmed that "there are technologies we need to improve, but we can travel and land on the moon with our own capabilities". Seoul aims to launch a lunar surface module together with a small rover by 2031.
And they are already working on it. On 27 July, the car manufacturers Hyundai and Kia signed an agreement with six Korean research institutes to develop robotic technologies to equip the country's future space rover. The project is joined by Korea's extensive space business network, which manufactures satellites and even the KSLV-II Nuri launcher, which successfully completed its second successful flight into space from the Naro space centre in southern Korea on 21 October.
Regarding the Danuri probe - also known as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter or KPLO - the Korean Ministry of Science and Telecommunications has already verified its proper operational status in orbit and confirmed that "the solar panels are generating sufficient power and all on-board devices are working properly".
It is being monitored throughout the mission by NASA's three Deep Space Network communications stations: the US station at Goldstone, California; the Australian station near Canberra; and the Spanish station located in the municipality of Robledo de Chavela, near Madrid. Korea also maintains partial contact with the probe via the large satellite dish it has built in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province.
Danuri will reach its long-awaited goal by the end of the year and not in about six days, the time it took the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 to travel nearly 400,000 kilometres. The reason is that the South Korean spacecraft does not follow a direct trajectory, which consumes a lot of energy. Instead, it flies in the direction of the Sun. It follows a so-called "lunar ballistic transfer" trajectory with low energy and fuel consumption, until it reaches the so-called Lagrange Point 1 (L1), located 1.56 million kilometres from our Blue Planet, where the Sun's attraction is balanced by the Earth's attraction. There it will slow down and be re-routed towards the Moon.
It is a similar path to that followed by the small American probe Capstone. Weighing 25 kilos and launched into orbit by NASA on 28 June from New Zealand, it is scheduled to reach the moon on 13 November, i.e. it will take 136 days to reach the moon.
If the Danuri mission goes according to the calculations of the KARI engineers, the probe will be captured by the Moon on 16 December after 135 days, i.e. four and a half months after the start of its flight. On 31 December, it will be placed in a circular orbit at an altitude of a hundred kilometres above the lunar surface. Once it has stabilised and the six scientific instruments on board have been checked, the spacecraft will begin observing and collecting data in early January.
One of the instruments has been provided by NASA. It is the ShadowCam camera, an evolution of the one on board the US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probe, launched on 18 June 2009, but about 200 times more sensitive. Its task is to map with a resolution of up to 1.7 metres per pixel the ground of the lunar regions at both poles that are always in shadow. The ShadowCam is intended to locate water ice deposits and other resources to help plan future manned missions and build sustainable bases.
ShadowCam and communications are not NASA's only contribution. The Agency is providing technical assistance, navigation technologies and, in collaboration with the Korea Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute, a kind of interplanetary Internet to prevent disruption of transmissions to Earth.
The other four instruments are a magnetometer (KMAG) to track the magnetic field between the Earth and the Moon; a gamma-ray spectrometer (KGRS) to search for spontaneous gamma-ray bursts produced by massive dying stars; a wide-angle polarimetric camera (PolCam) to analyse the properties of grains deposited on the lunar surface. For the descent mission planned for 2031, it incorporates a high-resolution camera (LUTI), which will provide images for KARI technicians to determine the most suitable landing sites.