Nasa aims for moon again to probe atmosphere

2013-09-06 12:36
The Moon. (AP)

The Moon. (AP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Cape Canaveral - Nasa is headed back to the moon, this time to explore its thin atmosphere and rough dust.

The robotic spacecraft Ladee will fly to the moon by way of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Liftoff is set for late on Friday night from Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility.

Weather permitting, the soaring Minotaur rocket should be visible along much of the US East Coast - as far south as South Carolina, as far north as Maine and as far west as Pittsburgh.

Ladee - short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer - will be the first spacecraft to be launched into outer space from Wallops. And it will be the first moon shot ever from Virginia in 54 years of lunar missions.

The unmanned Minotaur rocket consists of converted intercontinental ballistic missile motors. A peace treaty between the US and Russia specifies the acceptable launch sites for those missile parts; Wallops is on that short list.

All but one of Nasa's approximately 40 moon missions - most memorably the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s - originated from Cape Canaveral.

Lunar atmosphere

The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched two years ago this weekend. The lone exception, Clementine, a military-Nasa venture, rocketed away from Southern California in 1994.

Scientists involved in the $280m, moon-orbiting mission want to examine the lunar atmosphere - yes, that's right, the moon's atmosphere.

"Sometimes, people are a little taken aback when we start talking about the lunar atmosphere because, right, we were told in school that the moon doesn't have an atmosphere," said Sarah Noble, Nasa programme scientist.

"It does. It's just really, really thin."

The atmosphere is so thin and delicate, in fact, that spacecraft landings can disturb it. So now is the time to go, Noble said, before other countries and even private companies start bombarding the moon and fouling up the atmosphere.

Just last week, China announced plans to launch a lunar lander by year's end.

There's evidence Mercury also has a tenuous atmosphere, where, like our moon, the atmospheric molecules are so sparse that they never collide. Some moons of other planets also fall into that category, as do some big asteroids.

Lunar dust

Earth's moon is relatively close, and by studying its atmosphere, scientists will learn about similar atmospheres in places farther afield, Noble said.

Scientists also are eager to measure the lunar dust and see whether the abrasive, equipment-clogging particles actually levitate right off the surface. None of the previous moon missions focused exclusively on the atmosphere and dust.

It will take Ladee - the size of a small car coming in under 453kg - one month to get close enough to the moon to go into lunar orbit, followed by another month to check its three scientific instruments. Then the spacecraft will be manoeuvred from 48km to 145km above the lunar surface, where it will collect data for just over three months.

The mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon.

Nasa is inviting amateur astronomers to keep an eye out for any meteoric impacts on the moon once Ladee arrives there on 6 October. Such information will help scientists understand the effect of impacts on the lunar atmosphere and dust environment.

Hitching a ride on Ladee is an experimental laser communication system designed to handle higher data rates than currently available. Nasa hopes to eventually replace its traditional radio systems with laser communications, which use less power and requires smaller transmitters and receivers, while providing lightning-fast bandwidth.

Nasa was hot on the lunar trail when it announced the Ladee mission in 2008. But the effort to return astronauts to the moon was cancelled by President Barack Obama in 2010.

The latest target destinations for human explorers: An asteroid, then Mars. The debate continues as to whether the moon is a more practical starting point.

The Air Force Minotaur V rocket was built by Orbital Sciences. The Virginia-based company is scheduled to make its first-ever supply run to the International Space Station in just two weeks, using its own Antares rocket. Wallops will host that launch as well.
Read more on:    nasa  |  space

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.