The launch of NASA’s LADEE moon probe (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) has several points of interest. It was launched from the Wallops site, which made the flight visible from New York City. A friend of mine photographed the streak of light it made across the sky. It was sent up on a Minotaur V rocket, a derivative of the Peacekeeper ICBM. Arms limitation treaties have meant that surplus ICBMs can be recycled into launch vehicles. And the probe will examine the moon’s atmosphere, which most of us were taught as children didn’t exist. It does, but it’s very thin, more tenuous than the space just beyond the International Space Station. Astronauts visiting the moon reported a diffuse glow on the horizon ahead of sunrise. LADEE aims to find out if this is caused by electrically charged dust particles lifted up by the sun’s rays. The probe is on a leisurely trajectory to the moon, and will ultimately settle into an orbit only 20km above the lunar surface. After its 100 day mission, it will be made to crash onto the moon, and the dust plume kicked up will be studied by other instruments.
Intriguingly it will also be testing a laser communications system providing much faster data transmission rates of up to 600 megabits per second. In further missions, especially those featuring human exploration, this promises to be an important improvement to the way we communicate from space.
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