The Danuri is expected to enter the Moon’s orbit in December and will spend its year-long mission conducting research.
South Korea has joined the race to the Moon with the launch of its first lunar orbiter by Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX.
Danuri – meaning “enjoy the Moon” – was carried on a Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida by Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX on Thursday.
It aims to enter the Moon’s orbit in December.
“This is a very significant milestone in the history of Korean space exploration,” said Lee Sang-ryool, president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, in a video shown ahead of the launch.
During the year-long mission, Danuri will use six different instruments to conduct research, including investigating the lunar surface to identify potential landing sites for future missions.
One of the instruments will evaluate disruption-tolerant, network-based space communications, which, according to South Korea’s science ministry, is a world first.
Danuri, which took seven years to build, will also try to develop a wireless Internet environment to link satellites or exploration spacecraft, the ministry added.
The lunar orbiter will stream K-pop sensation BTS’s song Dynamite to test the network.
The launch comes as South Korea accelerates its space programme, seeking to send a probe to the moon by 2030 and join nine countries working on the Artemis project aimed at a lunar landing mission by 2024.
“If this mission succeeds, South Korea will become the seventh country in the world to have launched an unmanned probe to the Moon,” an official at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute told AFP.
“It is a huge moment for South Korea’s space development programme, and we hope to continue contributing to the global understanding of the Moon with what Danuri is set to find out.”
Space launches have long been a sensitive issue on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea faces international sanctions over its nuclear-armed ballistic missile programme.
In June, South Korea launched its first domestically developed space rocket – the Nuri.
China, Japan and India all have advanced space programmes, while the North is among countries with satellite launch capability.
In March, North Korea called for expanding its space rocket launch site to advance its space ambitions, after South Korea and the United States accused it of testing a new intercontinental ballistic missile under the guise of launching a space vehicle.
South Korea says its space programme is for peaceful and scientific purposes and any military use of the technology, such as in spy satellites, is for its defence.