NASA has launched an unmanned spacecraft that aims to study the Moon's atmosphere, the U.S. space agency's third lunar probe in five years.
Blazing a red path in the night sky, the spacecraft lifted off at 11:27 pm (Saturday 0327 GMT) aboard a converted Air Force ballistic missile known as the Minotaur V rocket from Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
All smooth after hiccup
LADEE was “on a perfect trajectory” to reach the Moon in 30 days, Nása has said on Saturday. Nasa engineers fixed mechanical problems the explorer encountered shortly after Friday night’s launch.
Although Nasa described the launch of the LADEE as successful, the small car-sized spacecraft commanded itself to shut down the reaction wheels, used to position and stabilise the spacecraft, after its separation from the rocket.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) hopes to learn more about the atmosphere and dust while circling the Moon.
When U.S. astronauts last walked on the Moon four decades ago, they learned that dust could be a huge problem for sensitive spacecraft and equipment, said space expert John Logsdon.
“If we were ever to go there with people for long duration, the dust gets in everything. It's not smooth dust like a piece of sand on the beach. It's made of very, very small fragments,” said Logsdon, a Nasa adviser.
The Moon's atmosphere is so thin that its molecules do not collide, in what is known as an exosphere.
Exploring that exosphere will be a $280 million solar and lithium battery-powered spacecraft about the size of a small car.
The journey to the Moon will take a full month.
Then the science begins…
When the spacecraft first enters the Moon's orbit on October 6, it will cruise at a height of about 250 kilometers for 40 days, and then move lower at 12.4 to 37.3 miles from the surface for the science portion of its mission.
It is carrying an Earth-to-Moon laser beam technology demonstration and three main tools, including a neutral mass spectrometer to measure chemical variations in the lunar atmosphere and other tools to analyze exosphere gasses and lunar dust grains.
“These measurements will help scientists address longstanding mysteries, including: was lunar dust, electrically charged by solar ultraviolet light, responsible for the pre-sunrise horizon glow that the Apollo astronauts saw?” Nasa said.
Other instruments will seek out water molecules in the lunar atmosphere.
Deadly, but useful, crash
One hundred days into the science portion of the mission, LADEE will make a death plunge into the Moon's surface.AFP
Nasa joined Instagram — and has already attracted an incredible 56,374 followers within hours. It posted two images for its debut. One was a detailed picture of the Moon and the second one was a stunning Earth-rise. Nasa also posted historic Moon images and real-time photos from the LADEE launch complex before and during the liftoff.
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