A Minotaur 5 rocket, making its debut flight, lifted off from NASA's Wallops Island, Virginia, spaceport late Friday to send the LADEE spacecraft on its way to the moon.
Unlike previous moon probes, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, isn't focused on the moon's surface. Rather, it will study the moon's tenuous atmosphere, which may include dust particles that somehow get lifted from the lunar surface.
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"We're taught in grade school and probably junior high that the moon has no atmosphere," project scientist Richard Elphic, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said during a launch broadcast on NASA TV.
"Indeed it does have an atmosphere, but it's utterly unlike our own atmosphere. It's very tenuous," he said.
In addition to analyzing what gases are around the moon, scientists want to learn more about dust that appears to be rising from its surface. Apollo astronauts reported seeing a strange glow on the lunar horizon just before sunrise. Scientists suspected that dust was being electrically charged and somehow lofted off the ground. LADEE will test that theory.