NASA LADEE Moon Mission: Unmanned Craft Set To Study Lunar Dust And Atmosphere, Will Launch In September

By Josh Lieberman on August 26, 2013 4:45 PM EDT

ladee
The LADEE mission will study the moon's atmosphere and the mysterious phenomenon of lunar dust. Above, an animated image of the spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)

NASA will send a spacecraft to the moon on September 6, 2013, as part of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission. The unmanned, car-sized LADEE spacecraft aims to study the moon's atmosphere and determine the effect the role that lunar dust plays in lunar exploration and lunar astronomy. NASA hopes the LADEE mission will help them better understand large asteroids, Mercury and other planets' moons.

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"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 D.C. "Further understanding of the moon's atmosphere may also help us better understand our diverse solar system and its evolution."

The moon's atmosphere is much thinner than Earth's, at about 1/100,000th the density of the Earth atmosphere. Scientists aren't really sure exactly what makes up the lunar atmosphere. LADEE will orbit the moon, collecting lunar dust and chemicals and sending back measurements to Earth.

The 800-pound LADEE will also seek to solve a longstanding moon mystery: what accounted for the lunar glow that Apollo mission astronauts saw hovering around the moon after lunar sunset? Scientists have theorized that the glow comes from sunlight reflecting off of dust--dust which is (somehow) floating above the lunar surface. With LADEE, NASA scientists want to figure out how dust can be lifted into the lunar sky. One theory is that sunlight charges lunar dust, lofting it above the lunar surface, perhaps even miles high.

The $280 million LADEE mission will mark the first time a craft is launched beyond Earth's orbit from Wallops Flight Facility, a NASA rocket launch site located on an island off the coast of Virginia. The mission will also be the first time the space agency launches a Minotaur V rocket, a ballistic missile developed by the U.S. Air Force which has been converted into a space launch vehicle and which will carry LADEE into space.

After a 30-day trip to the moon's orbit, and then 30 days of testing LADEE's systems, the craft will orbit the moon for 100 days collecting its measurements.

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