NASA to send rocket on 30-day mission to the moon to investigate ‘evil’ lunar dust

  • NASA to launch Lunar Atmosphere and Dust  Experiment – LADEE
  • Rocket takes off from Wallops Island,  Virginia on Friday night
  • Spacecraft to investigate possibility of  electrically charged dust

By  Sara Malm

PUBLISHED: 10:24 EST, 5  September 2013 |  UPDATED: 13:11 EST, 5 September 2013

It has been over four decades since NASA left  the moon, but now the space agency is at it again.

NASA is launching a small rocket to  investigate an unusual discovery made by the crew on Apollo 17 – moon  dust.

Crews reported seeing an odd glow on the  lunar horizon just before sunrise, an unexpected sight as the airless moon  lacked atmosphere for reflecting sunlight.

Sky high: An artist's concept showing the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer - LADEE - which will take off from a NASA base on FridaySky high: An artist’s concept showing the Lunar  Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer – LADEE – which will take off from a  NASA base on Friday

Scientists began to suspect that dust  from  the lunar surface was being electrically charged and somehow lofted off the  ground, a theory that will be tested by the NASA’s upcoming  Lunar Atmosphere  and Dust Experiment – LADEE.

The spacecraft is scheduled for lift off late  Friday night local time, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island,  Virginia.

‘Terrestrial dust is like talcum powder. On  the moon, it’s very rough. It’s kind of  evil. It follows electric field lines,  it works its way in equipment.

‘It’s a very difficult environment to deal  with,’ said LADEE project manager  Butler Hine of NASA’s Ames Research Center in  Moffett Field, California.

Mystery light: These photographs from the moon's surface just before sunrise are the origin of the moon dust mystery 

Mystery light: These photographs from the moon’s surface  just before sunrise are the origin of the moon dust mystery

The LADEE craft will circulate the moon 20-50 kilometres above its surface and analyse the lunar dust  

The LADEE craft will circulate the moon 20-50 kilometres  above its surface and analyse the lunar dust

 

 

The origins of the lunar glow, comes from a NASA  report from 1974 entitled ‘Evidence for a high altitude distribution of lunar  dust’ which exhibits Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan’s sketches as he  describes a unusual ‘glow’ as Apollo 17 approached the orbital  sunrise.

During the 1972 mission, astronaut Cernan  drew what he saw on a note pad, describing the event in words as a light that  ‘came from non existense [sic]  to subtle in nature then just before sunrise quickly sharp’

THE LOST IMAGES

Apollo 17, launched in December 1972, was  final moon landing carried out by NASA under the Apollo programme.

Austronaut Cernan and his two crew members  spent three days on the lunar surface, before returning to earth.

At last year’s 40th anniversary of their trip  to the moon, Cernan – to this day the last human to walk the moon – admitted he  left his camera on its surface.

‘I left my camera there with the lens  pointing up at the zenith, the idea being someday someone would come back and  find out how much deterioration solar cosmic radiation had on the glass,’ he  said at the time of the anniversary.

Cernan, now 79, did not think his would be  the last footprints on the moon, but due to NASA cutbacks, the Apollo programme  was closed before another manned mission was made.

However, as there is no wind on the moon to  lift the dust, scientists believe solar radiation could leave the particles  electronically charged during the day, and once colliding with negative  particles, the dust particles repel each other, ‘like strands of hair rubbed by  a balloon,’ Scientific American reported.

In addition to studying fly-away lunar dust,  LADEE will probe the tenuous  envelope of gases that surrounds the moon, a  veneer so thin it stretches the meaning of the word ‘atmosphere.’

Instead, scientists refer to these  environments as exospheres and hope that  understanding the moon’s gaseous shell  will shed light on similar  pockets around Mercury, asteroids and other airless  bodies.

‘LADEE is part of a much broader scientific  exploration of the solar system,’  said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate  administrator for science.

The $280 million mission also includes an  experimental laser optical  communications system that NASA hopes to incorporate  into future  planetary probes, including a Mars rover scheduled for launch in  2020.

The prototype is based on technology used in  terrestrial fiber-optic  communications systems, such as Verizon’s FiOS.

NASA says the system  should be at least six  times faster than conventional radio  communications. Also, its transmitters and  receivers weigh half as much  as similar radio communications equipment and use  25 per cent less  power.

Ready for take off: A Minotaur V launch vehicle is erected on the pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia during a pathfinder exercise ahead of tomorrow's launch 

Ready for take off: A Minotaur V launch vehicle is  erected on the pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia during a  pathfinder exercise ahead of tomorrow’s launch

Lads and LADEE: Engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center prepare LADEE ahead of its journey to analyse the possible 'moon dust' mystery from 40 years ago 

Lads and LADEE: Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center  prepare LADEE ahead of its journey to analyse the possible ‘moon dust’ mystery  from 40 years ago

 

Inspector gadget: The spacecraft has been designed to study the moon's exosphere and lunar dust environment and hopefully solve the mystery of the sunrise 'glow' 

Inspector gadget: The spacecraft has been designed to  study the moon’s exosphere and lunar dust environment and hopefully solve the  mystery of the sunrise ‘glow’

 

 

Wizz-ard: The final preparations and close-outs are underway for Friday's launch, including testing all the equipment 

Wizz-ard: The final preparations and close-outs are  underway for Friday’s launch, including testing all the equipment

 

‘On the Earth, we’ve  been using laser  communication and fiber optics to power our Internet  and everything else for  the last couple of decades,’ Grunsfeld said.

‘NASA has really been wanting to make that  same technological leap and put it into space. This is our chance to do  that.’

LADEE’s optical communications system, which  includes three ground stations in  addition to LADEE, will be tested before the  probe drops into a low  lunar orbit to begin its science mission about 60 days  after launch.

Just getting to the moon will take LADEE 30  days – 10 times longer than the  Apollo missions due to the probe’s relatively  low-powered Minotaur 5  launcher.

The rocket is  comprised of three refurbished  intercontinental ballistic missile motors and two commercially provided  boosters. The Minotaur 5 configuration  will be flying for the first time with  LADEE.

The use of decommissioned missile components  drove the decision to fly from NASA’s Wallops Island facility, one of only a few  launch sites  permitted to fly refurbished ICBMs under U.S.-Russian arms control  agreements

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