A lot is riding on a lunar science mission that NASA plans to launch tonight from Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia shore. And it isn’t just lunar science.
The primary goal of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer or LADEE (pronounced laddie) is to learn more about the moon’s thin atmosphere, which remains a mystery 4 decades after humans first landed on the moon. But the launch will also test new concepts and technologies that could help future space missions.
“It’s got a lot of firsts to it,” says Richard Elphic, project scientist for LADEE at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
For one, LADEE will be the first mission to be blasted into space atop a Minotaur V rocket, a newly designed launch vehicle that incorporates a Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile from the U.S. Air Force. Another precedent is the craft's architecture: LADEE was built by assembling a series of modules whose designs can be reused in future missions. In addition, the mission will provide NASA the first opportunity to test a new laser-based system for communicating with satellites. This system could significantly increase the speed and volume of data downloads from observational spacecraft.
The launch, scheduled for 11:27 p.m. on Friday, will be visible from as far afield as Washington, D.C. And viewers up and down the eastern shore, from Connecticut down to North Carolina, should be able to see the rocket speeding through the sky, if the skies are clear.