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.
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First though, LADEE has to get to the moon. The spacecraft is designed to make three highly elliptical orbits around Earth with the last loop high enough and timed properly so that it can fire its braking rocket and be captured by the moon's gravity.
Another 30-day checkout of its instruments will follow. During the checkout, engineers also will attempt to demonstrate an optical laser communications system. LADEE's science mission is expected to begin in November and last about four months.
Image credit: NASA TV