Moon Orbiter LADEE Will Crash Into Lunar Surface; NASA Taking Bets On When

By Ben Wolford on April 6, 2014 4:18 PM EDT

LADEE took this picture of the moon's surface on Feb. 8 while zooming 60 miles per minute in orbit. (Photo: NASA Ames)
LADEE took this picture of the moon's surface on Feb. 8 while zooming 60 miles per minute in orbit. (Photo: NASA Ames)

LADEE is doomed — it's a matter of when, not if.

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The NASA lunar orbiter, which launched late last year, is slowly losing altitude over the moon's surface. Sometime in the next two weeks, it will splash into the dark side of the moon, concluding a seven-month mission to investigate the atmosphere of the moon and its dust. But scientists don't know exactly when.

So they're taking bets from the public on a website, where anyone can plug in their name, email address and the date and time of their best guess. "The moon's gravity field is so lumpy, and the terrain is so highly variable with crater ridges and valleys that frequent maneuvers are required or the LADEE spacecraft will impact the moon's surface," says LADEE project manager Butler Hine in a statement. "Even if we perform all maneuvers perfectly, there's still a chance LADEE could impact the moon sometime before April 21, which is when we expect LADEE's orbit to naturally decay after using all the fuel onboard." The prize for the correct guess is a certificate from NASA.

LADEE, pronounced "laddie," stands for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. And that's pretty much all it's doing. The impetus for the satellite's 100-day science experiment was a strange sunrise glow that NASA's lunar astronauts witnessed on the surface. Because the moon's atmosphere is so thin, the glow was surprising. A leading theory suggests lunar dust, charged by the sun's ultraviolet light, caused the phenomenon.

Now the $280 million orbiter, which is about the size of a vending machine, is nearly finished with its work. In the recent statement, NASA says its scientists are preparing for a few final maneuvers on April 11. That's when the Earth will pass between the sun and the moon, casting a cold dark shadow over LADEE for about four hours. The eclipse "exposes the spacecraft to conditions just on the edge of what it was designed to survive," according to NASA. The maneuver will steer LADEE away from the historic sites of the lunar landings on the far side of the moon.

As the mission winds down, NASA managers are taking stock of LADEE's success. They say the three instruments onboard recorded more than 700,000 measurements, which scientists on the ground will now begin to sift through. These measurements, they added, are all the more valuable because of LADEE's unique orbital position (between 12 and 93 miles from the surface) and because it traveled so quickly (about 60 miles per minute), allowing scientists to take readings at multiple points around the moon in just a few hours. "Our Moon holds a special place in so many cultures, and because of LADEE, we'll know more than ever before about our nearest neighbor," said Jim Green, Director for Planetary Science, in the NASA statement.

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