NASA is making final preparations to launch a small car-sized-robotic spacecraft to the moon next month that will answer prevailing questions about our nearest celestial neighbor, the space agency said on Thursday.
The space probe, named Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), 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,” NASA said in a press release describing the mission. “A thorough understanding of these characteristics of our nearest celestial neighbor will help researchers understand other bodies in the solar system, such as large asteroids, Mercury, and the moons of outer planets.”
The 547-pound spacecraft is planned for launch from Wallops Island, Va. on Sept.6 at 11:27 p.m. EDT.
"The moon's tenuous atmosphere may be more common in the solar system than we thought," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington. "Further understanding of the moon's atmosphere may also help us better understand our diverse solar system and its evolution."
“The mission has many firsts,” NASA said, “including the first flight of the Minotaur V rocket, testing of a high-data-rate laser communication system, and the first launch beyond Earth orbit from the agency's Virginia Space Coast launch facility.
“LADEE also is the first spacecraft designed, developed, built, integrated and tested at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.”
Approximately one month after launch, LADEE will begin its 40-day commissioning phase, the first 30 days of which the spacecraft will be testing a high-data-rate laser communication system that will enable higher rates of satellite communications similar in capability to high-speed fiber optic networks on Earth, NASA said.
“After commissioning, LADEE will begin a 100-day science phase to collect data using three instruments to determine the composition of the thin lunar atmosphere and remotely sense lofted dust, measure variations in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and collect and analyze samples of any lunar dust particles in the atmosphere,” the space agency said. “Using this set of instruments, scientists hope to address a long-standing question: Was lunar dust, electrically charged by sunlight, responsible for the pre-sunrise glow above the lunar horizon detected during several Apollo missions?”
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