NASA robotic spacecraft lifts off to probe lunar dust

Sat Sep 7, 2013 5:17am EDT

1 of 2. The small car-sized Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is a robotic mission that will orbit the moon to gather detailed information about the structure and composition of the thin lunar atmosphere and determine whether dust is being lofted into the lunar sky is pictured at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia September 5, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/Handout via Reuters

Related Video

Video

Moon mission lifts off

Sat, Sep 7 2013

Related Topics

(Reuters) - An unmanned Minotaur 5 rocket blasted off from the Virginia coast on Friday to send a small NASA science satellite on its way to the moon, officials said.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft, known as LADEE, was designed to look for dust rising from the lunar surface, a phenomenon reported by the Apollo astronauts decades ago.

"For the first time in 40 years, we have the opportunity to address that mystery," project scientist Richard Elphic, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said during a launch broadcast on NASA TV.

From an orbit as low as about 31 miles above the lunar surface, LADEE also will probe the thin pocket of gases surrounding the moon. The tenuous atmosphere, which contains argon, helium, sodium, potassium and other elements, may hold clues about how water came to be trapped inside craters on the moon's frozen poles.

"We're taught in grade school and probably junior high that the moon has no atmosphere," Elphic said.

"Indeed it does have an atmosphere, but it's utterly unlike our own atmosphere. It's very tenuous," he said.

LADEE's 30-day trip to the moon began with an 11:27 p.m. EDT/0327 GMT Saturday liftoff of a five-stage Minotaur rocket making its debut flight. The first three stages are decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile motors, and the last two stages are commercial motors manufactured by Alliant Techsystems Inc.

The rocket blasted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility, the first deep-space mission to fly from the Virginia spaceport.

Weather permitting, the rocket was expected to be visible from Maine to eastern North Carolina, and as far west as Wheeling, West Virginia. New Yorkers were due to be treated to a live televised view of the launch on the Toshiba Vision Screen in Times Square, just below the site where the famous New Year's Eve ball is dropped.

The use of decommissioned missile components drove the decision to fly from Wallops Island, one of only a few launch sites permitted to fly refurbished ICBMs under U.S.-Russian arms control agreements.

LADEE's month-long journey to the moon includes three highly elliptical passes around Earth, timed so that during the final orbit the probe will be far enough away to be captured by the moon's gravity after LADEE fires its braking rocket.

Once LADEE is in lunar orbit, scientists will check out the spacecraft's three instruments and test a prototype optical laser communications system. Science operations are expected to begin in November.

"This is a science mission, but it has some new technology," Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center, told Reuters. "We're confident stuff will work, but we certainly will be watching very, very carefully as each of these new things unfolds."

The $280 million mission is expected to last about six months.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz in Portland, Maine; Editing by Jackie Frank and Eric Walsh)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (5)
Harry079 wrote:
“The $280 million mission is expected to last about six months.”

Somehow I don’t believe observing lunar dust bunnies is the major goal of this mission.

The testing of a prototype optical laser communications system sounds more like the real reason.

Sep 07, 2013 2:28pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
krm398 wrote:
Its nice Nasa is getting something new going. New satellite new technology to try out, but don’t let them fool you, this is a very very cheap mission. Compared to the billions they get a year, this is a drop in the bucket, but they are still giving it the big push so everyone knows they are still around, and those that watch them closely know that billions are being spent on machines that are less advanced and more pork for their old friends than this one. This one is getting something done, if it weren’t for the twin rovers making them look good, Nasa would have been hounded by their supporters years ago.

Sep 07, 2013 3:10pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Harry079 wrote:
As of yesterday NASA programs have received a tad over $15 billion for 2013.

So by my math that’s about 1.8% of NASA’s budget to study lunar dust bunnies.

Or a really cheap way to test a prototype optical laser communications system to be used for who knows what.

Sep 07, 2013 5:15pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.