Sept. 6, 2013
NASA is headed back to the moon, this time to explore its thin atmosphere and rough dust.
The robotic spacecraft LADEE, will fly to the moon by way of Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Liftoff is set for late Friday night from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
Weather permitting, the soaring Minotaur rocket should be visible along much of the East Coast — as far south as South Carolina, as far north as Maine and as far west as Pittsburgh.
LADEE — short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer — will be the first spacecraft to be launched into outer space from Wallops. And it will be the first moonshot ever from Virginia in 54 years of lunar missions.
Scientists involved in the $280 million, moon-orbiting mission want to examine the lunar atmosphere.
"Sometimes, people are a little taken aback when we start talking about the lunar atmosphere because, right, we were told in school that the moon doesn't have an atmosphere," said Sarah Noble, NASA program scientist. "It does. It's just really, really thin."
The atmosphere is so thin and delicate, in fact, that spacecraft landings can disturb it. So now is the time to go, Noble said, before other countries and even private companies start bombarding the moon and fouling up the atmosphere.
Just last week, China announced plans to launch a lunar lander by year's end.
There's evidence Mercury also has a tenuous atmosphere, where, like our moon, the atmospheric molecules are so sparse that they never collide. Some moons of other planets also fall into that category, as do some big asteroids.
It will take LADEE — the size of a small car coming in under 1,000 pounds — one month to get close enough to the moon to go into lunar orbit, followed by another month to check its three scientific instruments. Then the spacecraft will be maneuvered from 30 miles to 90 miles above the lunar surface, where it will collect data for just over three months.
Hitching a ride on LADEE is an experimental laser communication system designed to handle higher data rates than currently available. NASA hopes to eventually replace its traditional radio systems with laser communications, which uses less power and requires smaller transmitters and receivers, while providing lightning-fast bandwidth.
The mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon.