The New York Times reported on August 31 that NASA is planning to launch a rocket to the moon on September 6. The rocket will be visible to spectators on Earth for several minutes before it leaves the atmosphere.
The name of the unmanned spacecraft is that Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, LADEE for short. The spacecraft will take thirty days before it reaches the moon. Once LADEE is in the moon's orbit, it will spend 100 days gathering data about lunar dust and searching for water molecules in the moon's atmosphere. LADEE will not return to earth, but meet its end in a kamikaze like event when it plunges itself into the surface of the moon.
LADEE was conceived during the early development stages of planning manned missions to the moon, but the Obama administration canceled the program, called Constellation, in 2010, but plans for LADEE moved forward.
The study has huge implications including helping scientists prepare for future manned missions to the moon. NASA currently has no plans for other moon missions, but some members of Congress are calling on the space agency to focus on moon exploration rather than pursue current projects, like planning a manned mission to Mars and attempting to capture an asteroid.
The current moon mission will be NASA's third attempt in five years to send unmanned spacecraft to the moon. NASA researchers are excited about LADEE, but concerned that the data collected could be a wasted effort if moon voyages are not a definite part of the space agency's future schedule. David Kring, the senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute told reporters that
If you're going to fly this mission with the goal of understanding the atmosphere and how dust might affect future human missions, and you don't have future human missions, then part of the reason for the mission disappears."
The moon is looking to be a popular destination in the years to come. China announced last week that its planning to land an exploratory rover on the moon by the end of the year. The European Space Agency, Russia, India, and Japan have plans for unmanned moon missions as well. Google is offering $20 million to the first company to send a robotic spacecraft to the moon through a competition called the Lunar X Prize.