- 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.
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
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
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’
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