Korean orbiter project in danger of being scrapped altogether due to frequent revisions

Posted on : 2019-12-01 14:04 KST Modified on : 2019-12-01 14:04 KST
Science ministry once again changes planned orbit from circular to elliptical without NASA consent
An illustration demonstrating the planned orbit for a lunar orbiter developed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI).
An illustration demonstrating the planned orbit for a lunar orbiter developed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI).

Ever since the South Korean Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT) announced this past September that it would be changing the orbit of a planned lunar orbiter from circular to elliptical, NASA, MSIT’s key partner in the project, has reportedly indicated that this change of plans is “unacceptable.” The government is planning to send a probe into orbit around the moon in 2022 for a year in order to collect various data, including photographs of the surface. But the latest developments are prompting concerns that the orbiter project, which has been repeatedly revised since work began in 2016, is in danger of being scrapped altogether.

This news was brought to light through documents released on Nov. 17 by Lee Cheol-hui, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party, who solicited them from MSIT and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), the body responsible for the project’s research. These documents show that John Guidi, deputy director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division, and other NASA representatives who visited South Korea on Oct. 16-17 made it clear during a meeting with KARI officials that MSIT’s plan to change the orbital revolution was unacceptable and asked KARI to find a way to ensure a circular orbit.

Key project partner NASA calls change “unacceptable”

On Sept. 10, MSIT released a draft revision to the moon survey plan that sought to delay the orbiter’s launch from December 2020 until July 2022. The draft revision also altered the orbital revolution from a circular orbit at the elevation of 100km to an elliptical orbit at an elevation of 100-300km, based on the probe’s increased weight. NASA has agreed to provide technology to allow KARI to communicate with the orbiter in real time, in exchange for attaching a camera to the South Korean orbiter so as to collect data about the moon’s south pole.

In a technology review report sent to KARI on the day of MSIT’s announcement, NASA declared in no uncertain terms that its payload wouldn’t be able to achieve the minimum scientific results under the revised orbital revolution. After hearing from KARI that the orbit might be changed, NASA representatives took advantage of a high-level teleconference on Sept. 27 to communicate their desire for the moon mission to spend a year in a circular orbit. In effect, MSIT announced a project change without the consent of NASA, a key partner in the project.

During a meeting with KARI last month, NASA representatives asked the institute to find a way to ensure the orbit is circular, even if that means altering the route that the orbiter takes from the earth to the moon. KARI staff were planning to hold further deliberations with NASA at Johnson Space Center, in Houston, but the prospects aren’t very bright.

NASA says it won’t be getting involved

“The course change that NASA mentioned would magnify the project’s difficulty several times, and that would be extremely hard to pull off using domestic technology. But NASA told us in correspondence two weeks ago that it’s South Korea’s responsibility to plan the project, including the route, and that NASA won’t be getting involved, which is to say it won’t be providing support,” a KARI researcher said.

“KARI’s incompetence and the Ministry of Science and ICT’s complacency has left the space exploration program in limbo and could well make us an international disgrace. We need to defer funding and carry out a complete review of the program plan while launching a stringent audit of the Ministry and KARI,” Lee Cheol-hui said.

A total of 197.8 billion won (US$167.58 million) has been budgeted for the lunar exploration project. After its announcement in September, MSIT asked for an additional 28.8 billion won (US$24.4 million) and is currently waiting for the National Assembly to review that request.

“[The announcement we made in Sept. 10] didn’t mean that we’ve finalized the orbital change, but that we mean to discuss it with NASA. We’ll remain in consultation with NASA about the orbital change, along with other technological support issues,” an MSIT official said.

By Choi Ha-yan, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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