August 23, 2013
NASA Readies Lunar Probe For First Virginia Launch
[ Watch the Video: New Moon Mission Ready For Launch ]
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineNASA is currently preparing to launch a new mission from Virginia on September 6 that is expected to set many firsts for the space agency.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is a robotic mission that will send a car-sized orbiter to the moon in an effort to gather detailed information about the composition of the thin lunar atmosphere and determine if dust from the surface is being drawn up into the lunar sky. NASA scientists said they expect the mission will help them understand similar bodies in the solar system, such as large asteroids and other moons.
"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. "Further understanding of the moon's atmosphere may also help us better understand our diverse solar system and its evolution."
Among the mission’s many firsts will be the maiden voyage of the Minotaur V rocket. The LADEE mission will also debut a high-data-rate laser communication system and will be the first launch from NASA’s Virginia Space Coast launch facility destined to leave Earth’s orbit.
The Minotaur V is a five-stage rocket fashioned from an excess Peacekeeper ballistic missile. Reductions in the Peacekeeper arsenal were expected under the ill-fated START II treaty. While the treaty never went into effect, the missiles were decommissioned anyway, with the last one taken out of service in 2005.
The LADEE itself was built using a general purpose design called the Modular Common Spacecraft Bus architecture developed at the space agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The structure is made of a carbon composite with a mass of over 840 pounds when fully fueled.
"This mission will put the common bus design to the test," said Simon P. Worden, a director at Ames. "This same common bus can be used on future missions to explore other destinations, including voyages to orbit and land on the moon, low-Earth orbit, and near-Earth objects."
LADEE project manager Butler Hine said the design concept is a first step toward more efficient multi-use designs and assembly line production.
"The LADEE mission demonstrates how it is possible to build a first class spacecraft at a reduced cost while using a more efficient manufacturing and assembly process," he explained.
In October, one month after being launched, LADEE will begin the first tests of a laser communication system that will enable higher rates of data transfer, similar to the high-speed fiber optic networks on Earth.
After the initial 40-day commissioning phase, LADEE will begin a 100-day scientific endeavor to gather information on the composition of the lunar atmosphere, remotely sense lofted dust, record variations in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, and analyze collected samples of lunar dust particles that might be picked up. NASA scientists said they hope to understand the reason behind the pre-sunrise glow above the lunar horizon observed during several Apollo missions.
After the rocket launch, the Ames facility will act as a base for mission operations and control of the LADEE. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland will record and distribute data to an analytics team spread out across the country.