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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted into space on Thursday night and launched a science probe to South Korea on its way to the moon on an ambitious mission to help in permanently shadowed polar craters Look for ice deposits.

The Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO) spacecraft is equipped with four Korean instruments — two cameras, a gamma-ray spectrometer, and a magnetometer — and an ultra-sensitive U.S.-based “ShadowCam” NASA cameras designed to peek into those dark craters to help scientists see what’s there.

In fact, if ice had accumulated in the icy shadow, and if it was accessible, future astronauts might be able to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen. Ice will provide air, water and even rocket fuel, provided the infrastructure to extract the ice is available and the technology is affordable.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carrying a South Korean probe designed to map the lunar surface and observe permanently shadowed craters. The putative ice deposits could provide a source of water, air and rocket fuel for future astronauts.

William Harwood/CBS News

It’s unclear, but NASA’s Artemis program is targeting shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole, with regular flights to the lunar surface starting in 2025 or 2026 to find out and test what’s needed for an eventual flight to Mars life support and other systems.

In addition to finding potential landing sites, KPLO will measure the radiation environment, characterize the composition of lunar soil, and test the interplanetary internet capabilities of communications equipment.

The South Korean Pathfinder lunar orbiter during final assembly.

Korea Aerospace Research Institute

“The KPLO mission includes the first phase of South Korea’s lunar exploration program,” wrote the nonprofit Planetary Society. “In the second phase, they plan to launch another lunar orbiter, a lander and a rover.”

The KPLO mission kicked off Thursday from Pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 7:08 p.m. ET for a perfect start.

Using the recovered first stage for its sixth flight, the Falcon 9 rocket put on a dramatic show in the evening, flying east across the Atlantic and quickly disappearing from view.

South Korea’s lunar probe was released from the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket to fly on its own. If all goes well, the spacecraft will slide into lunar orbit in mid-December.


40 minutes after launch, after the rocket’s second-stage engines fired twice, the 1,500-pound KPLO spacecraft was released to fly on its own along a fuel-efficient trajectory. If all goes well, the probe will reach a 60-mile-high circular orbit around the moon in mid-December.

SpaceX’s launch came just 12.5 hours after a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carried the Space Force missile warning satellite into orbit from nearby Launch Pad 41. That’s the shortest interval between two Florida space missions since 1967, according to Spaceflight Now.

The KPLO launch was Space Coast’s 34th launch so far this year, setting another record that will be broken with every subsequent launch. SpaceX alone is responsible for 27 flights to Florida. The other seven include five Atlas 5s and two Astra “risk-class” rockets.

60 or more Florida launches are expected by the end of the year.

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