The moon has never seen a visitor like this before. NASA launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) unmanned explorer from Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday night. The latest mission -- equipped with three cutting-edge science instruments and a technology demonstration -- will gather detailed information about the moon's delicate atmosphere. The spacecraft will also monitor conditions near the moon's surface and observe how it affects lunar dust, helping scientists solve some mysteries surrounding the Earth's natural satellite.
LADEE, pronounced "laddie," is a robotic mission that will orbit the moon for 100 days of science operations. It will take the spacecraft 30 days to travel to the moon. The spacecraft's final resting place will be on the moon, on the lunar surface after the work is done. The mission comes at a time when global interest in moon exploration is increasing, and future missions may affect the natural composition of the moon's atmosphere, according to NASA.
Unlike some past lunar missions, LADEE involves many firsts. It was the first spacecraft to launch on the U.S. Air Force Minotaur V rocket, and the first deep space mission to take off from the Wallops Flight Facility. LADEE is also the initial spacecraft for interplanetary exploration built using a Modular Common Spacecraft Bus. With the modular design, NASA is transitioning away from custom building to assembly line-like production. The new way of constructing spacecraft could drastically reduce development costs. The LADEE mission cost approximately $280 million, including spacecraft development and science instruments, launch services, mission operations, science processing and relay support.
"LADEE is designed to really lower the cost of spacecraft. The idea we came up with is to build it kind of like a desktop computer, where you can add the necessary components (as needed). We can do a number of rapidly produced space missions this way," NASA Ames Research Center director S. Pete Worden said during a pre-launch press briefing on Sept. 5. NASA Ames, located in Silicon Valley, designed, developed, built and tested the spacecraft.
LADEE's main goal will be to determine the composition and structure of the lunar atmosphere. More specifically, the 844-pound spacecraft will use its science payload to study the density and composition of the atmosphere, and to determine the size, charge and spatial distribution of lunar dust and its impact on the atmosphere, among other observations. Scientists also hope LADEE's findings will offer additional insight into other planets in the solar system.
InformationWeek Government continues to follow NASA's deep space missions. Explore our slideshow to learn more about the LADEE mission goals.