Dust may not sound like the most interesting research topic, but NASA is set to launch the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) this week to do just that. The robotic mission will orbit the moon to research the lunar atmosphere, studying conditions near the surface and looking at environmental influences on lunar dust.
NASA says a more detailed understanding of these characteristics will address a mystery which remains from the Apollo 17 mission in 1972: The Apollo 17 crew reportedly saw a strange glow on the lunar horizon just before sunrise, unexpected because the airless moon lacked atmosphere for reflecting sunlight.
After engineers completed launch prep activities at NASA's Ames Research Center, the LADEE observatory was encapsulated into the nose-cone of the Minotaur V rocket, seen here, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va., where it is set for launch during a five-day period that opens on September 6, 2013 from Pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
Here, an engineer works on the LADEE spacecraft, which will orbit the moon to gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface, and environmental influences on lunar dust.
Following launch, LADEE will be placed into an elliptical retrograde equatorial orbit around the moon, with an orbital period of approximately 24 hours. A series of maneuvers will then be performed to reduce the orbit to an altitude of 156 miles.
The 100-day Science Phase will make observations from altitudes 20-60 kilometers due to the moon’s "lumpy" gravity field, NASA says.
During preparations for NASA's LADEE observatory, engineers checked the spacecraft's alignment after it was shipped across the country from the preparation facility at NASA Ames Reseach Center in Mountain View, Calif.
The propulsion system was checked for leaks, solar power panels repaired, and final electrical tests were done before launch.
Engineers then mounted the spacecraft onto a spin table and rotated it at high speeds of approximately one revolution per second, ensuring the spacecraft is perfectly balanced for flight. Even the tiniest offset can damage the delicate instruments.
The team measured any offsets during the spinning, and then added small weights to the spacecraft to make sure it was perfectly balanced. Once balanced, the team loaded the propulsion tanks with fuel, oxidizer, and pressurant, and the spin tests were performed again.
Engineers at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia encapsulate NASA's LADEE spacecraft into the fairing of the Minotaur V launch vehicle nose-cone.
The on-board instrument array and experiments include an Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer, a Neutral Mass Spectrometer, the Lunar Dust Experiment, and an experimental Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration.
Current communications with spacecraft beyond close Earth orbits require spacecraft to have small, low-mass, low-power radio transmitters and giant satellite dishes on Earth to receive their messages.
The LADEE spacecraft, using the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, will demonstrate the use of lasers instead of radio waves to achieve broadband speeds to communicate with Earth, a method of communication NASA hopes to use on future missions if successful.
The Lunar Dust Experiment instrument, seen here in the lab, will collect and analyze samples of lunar dust particles in the extremely thin atmosphere of the moon.
These measurements will help scientists address the longstanding mystery from the 1972 Apollo 17 mission: Was lunar dust, electrically charged by solar ultraviolet light, responsible for the pre-sunrise horizon glow that the Apollo 17 crew saw?
The LADEE spacecraft in the nose-cone at the top of the full Minotaur V launch vehicle stack. LADEE is the first spacecraft designed, developed, built, integrated, and tested at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
LADEE has been encapsulated into the nose-cone of its Minotaur V rocket launch vehicle, seen here, and is scheduled for launch at 11:27 p.m. EDT on September 6 from Pad 0B at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.
NASA’s LADEE spacecraft is currently scheduled to lift off at 11:27 p.m. EDT, September 6, 2013 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0B at the Wallops Flight Facility. The launch will be visible to millions along the mid-Atlantic of the East Coast.
The LADEE launch will be visible across a wide area, weather permitting. This map shows the degrees above the horizon that the Minotaur V rocket will reach during the September 6, 2013 launch along the US East Coast.
The LADEE orbiting spacecraft itself is notable for its modular, configurable design. The Modular Common Spacecraft Bus, or body, is an innovation NASA is exploring as a way of transitioning away from expensive mission-specific, custom designs and toward multi-use designs and assemblyline production, which could drastically reduce the cost of spacecraft development, just as the Ford Model T did for automobiles.
An artist's concept of NASA's LADEE in orbit above the moon shows the spacecraft as dust scatters light during the lunar sunset. The Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer (UVS) instrument will determine the composition of the lunar atmosphere by analyzing light signatures of materials it finds.