South Korea Is Scouting Out the Moon, With More Missions to Come

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“If you don’t look at it carefully, you might not be able to see it,” Dr. Li said.

Jean-Pierre Williams, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and another participating scientist in the Danuri mission, is hoping to produce detailed temperature maps of the craters by combining the ShadowCam images with data gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

NASA’s orbiter, which has been studying the moon since 2009, carries an instrument that records temperatures of the lunar surface. But those measurements are blurred over a fairly large area, about 900 feet across. The resolution of a ShadowCam is about 5 feet per pixel. Thus, the ShadowCam images used together with computer models might make it possible to tease out temperature variations on the surface.

“With this data we can map out local and seasonal temperatures,” Dr. Williams said. That, in turn, can help scientists understand the stability of water and carbon dioxide ices in the crater.

Researchers will have to wait several months for the science to begin. The spacecraft is taking a long, energy-efficient route to the moon. It first heads toward the sun, then loops back around to be captured in lunar orbit on Dec. 16. This “ballistic trajectory” takes longer but does not require a large engine firing to slow the spacecraft when it gets to the moon.

South Korea has an extensive military missile program, and has placed several communications and earth observation satellites in low-Earth orbit since launching its first in 1992. And it has been expanding its domestic rocket launching capabilities so that future missions may not need to rely on SpaceX, or on other countries, to get to space. In June, the Korean Aerospace Research Institute successfully placed several satellites in orbit with the second flight of Nuri, its homegrown rocket.

“We will take on challenging projects such as lunar landers and asteroid exploration,” Mr. Kwon said.

Jin Yu Young contributed reporting from Seoul.

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