NASA's moon mission LADEE spacecraft blasts off

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail The Guardian, November 28, 2013
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NASA's newest robotic explorer rocketed into space late on Friday night in an unprecedented moonshot from the state of Virginia.

The LADEE spacecraft, which is charged with studying the lunar atmosphere and dust, soared aboard an unmanned Minotaur rocket a little before midnight.

It was a change of venue for NASA, which normally launches moon missions from Cape Canaveral, Florida. But it provided a rare light show along the east coast of the US for those blessed with clear skies.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, is taking a roundabout path to the moon, making three huge laps around Earth before getting close enough to pop into lunar orbit.

Unlike the quick three-day Apollo flights to the moon, Ladee will need a full month to reach Earth's closest neighbour. An Air Force Minotaur V rocket provided the ride from Nasa's Wallops flight facility.

LADEE, which is the size of a small car, is expected to reach the moon on 6 October.

Scientists want to learn the composition of the moon's delicate atmosphere and how it might change over time. Another puzzle, dating back decades, is whether dust levitates from the lunar surface.

The $280 million moon-orbiting mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon for Ladee.

The spacecraft has three science instruments as well as laser communication test equipment that could revolutionise data relay. NASA hopes to eventually replace its traditional radio systems with laser communications, which would mean faster bandwidth using significantly less power and smaller devices.

"There's no question that as we send humans farther out into the solar system, certainly to Mars," that laser communications will be needed to send high-definition and 3-D video, said NASA's science mission chief, John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who worked on the Hubble space telescope.

It was a momentous night for Wallops, which was hosting its first deep-space liftoff. All its previous launches were confined to Earth orbit.

NASA chose Wallops for LADEE because of the Minotaur V rocket, comprised of converted intercontinental ballistic missile motors belonging to the Air Force. A US-Russian treaty limits the number of launch sites because of the missile parts.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 brought the first men from the Earth to the Moon. [File photo]

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 brought the first men from the Earth to the Moon. [File photo]

All but one of NASA's previous moon missions since 1959, including the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s, originated from Cape Canaveral. The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched two years ago. The military-Nasa Clementine rocketed away from southern California in 1994.

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