The U.S. Has Long Studied the Moon. Now South Korea Joins In

TMoon club members are a select group. The only countries that have launched spacecraft to the moon or orbit it since the advent of the space age are the United States, Russia, China and Japan. The August 2nd, as Nature reports, that rarefied group will add a new member, when South Korea’s Danuri (which means “enjoy the moon”) probe is launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Danuri will travel long and looping to the moonward, and reach lunar orbit around mid-December.

The 678 kg (1,495 lb) probe is relatively small as these things go, but it’s packed with five scientific instruments. Among the ones researchers are most excited about is the PolCam, which will study the moon’s surface in polarized light, analyzing the density of its grains of dust. This will help explain so-called “fairy castle” structures, mini-towers of dust that could not form on Earth because the greater gravity of our planet would pull them to the ground. Also on board are the ShadowCam—which will study permanently shadowed regions of the moon that may harbor water ice—and a magnetometer, that will help explain how so small a body as the moon once had a core large and dynamic enough to generate a magnetic field.

South Korea isn’t the only nation making news about the moon this week. Also making news this week is the U.S. and the legendary Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of the United States (LRO), launched in 2009 and still orbiting the Moon. Future astronauts will face many obstacles as they attempt to live on the permanent lunar bases NASA plans. For starters, there’s the constant bombardment of cosmic rays, solar radiation, and micrometeorites. Then too there is the temperature, which ranges from a blistering 127º C (260º F) during the lunar day to a frigid -173º C (-260º F) at night. But there’s an answer: caves.

Not long after the LRO arrived at the moon, it discovered pits in the lunar surface that looked like they lead to lava tubes—now-empty cave-like channels through which lava used to run. Natural protection would be provided by the lunar habitats built within these caves from cosmic rays, solar radiation and micrometeorite. But there’s still the temperature to reckon with—or there was.

NASA reported this week that a NASA-sponsored study using an onboard thermal camera and computer modeling was done to analyze a pit the size of a football. The result: if the cave indeed exists, it would maintain a steady and survivable temperature of 17º C (63º F) through both the lunar day and lunar night. LRO may have just found the right piece of land NASA needs to construct its first lunar home.

The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Register here.

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