When NASA astronauts last landed on the moon—more than 40 years ago, during the Apollo 17 mission—they reported seeing a strange glow across the horizon. But because the airless moon lacks atmosphere for reflecting sunlight, scientists weren’t sure what was causing the glow. They suspected that dust from the moon’s surface was being electrically charged and lifting off the ground. But NASA never got a chance to test their theory—until now.
On September 6, NASA launched LADEE (pronounced “laddie”), a small robotic spacecraft that will help answer many questions that remained after the Apollo moon missions. LADEE stands for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. It launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 11:27 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, and is set to arrive at the moon on October 6.
A LUNAR LOOK
During its mission, LADEE will circle the moon and gather detailed information about the lunar exosphere, an atmosphere so thin that the molecules don’t bounce off each other. LADEE will scoop up some of the moon’s dust in the exosphere to test its role in the lunar sky. It will also collect gases to see what types are present. Scientists hope that learning about the moon’s exosphere will teach them about other planetary bodies with similar exospheres, such as Mercury and some small asteroids.
“LADEE is part of a much broader scientific exploration of the solar system,” NASA’s John Grunsfeld told reporters.
LADEE will also test a new laser communication system that could be the first step toward creating an Internet in outer space. Spacecraft currently use radio waves—which are very spread out and require huge antennas to pick them up—to communicate with Earth. But laser signals are transmitted along much narrower and tighter beams. They can be picked up by much smaller antennas, which cost a lot less money. They can also send a lot more data at much faster speeds.
A NEW KIND OF SPACECRAFT
LADEE, designed and controlled by NASA’s Ames Research Center, is the first spacecraft to use a modular body (one made up of various parts that perform different functions). Scientists can add or remove parts based on the mission’s needs. Modular spacecraft are much cheaper to build than custom-designed ones.
“NASA is looking for affordable ways to launch often and inexpensively,” says David Korsmeyer of the Ames Research Center.
Once LADEE has finished collecting data from the moon and sending it back to Earth—about 160 days after its launch—it will begin moving down to lower altitudes before finally crashing into the moon. But LADEE’s mission will certainly have an impact on space exploration forever.