Just two years after the end of its shuttle program and one year after the landing of Mars rover Curiosity, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is embarking on yet another mission to space. This time it’s LADEE, or Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.
LADEE is “a robotic mission that will orbit the moon to gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust,” according to NASA’s website.
The probe is expected to be launched just before 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 6. It will be the first moon launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. It will spend approximately 160 days in space, with 30 days of that spent actually traveling to the moon.
The first goal of LADEE is to learn more about the lunar atmosphere. The atmosphere of the moon is incredibly thin and its molecules never collide with one another, creating what is known as an exosphere. The Earth has an exosphere as well, and the NASA scientists hope that studying the moon’s exosphere will reveal things about our planet, as well as other planets in the solar system.
“It’s a class of atmosphere we actually don’t know that much about, so it turns out the moon is actually a really convenient place to go and learn about this really common type of atmosphere,” Sarah Noble, LADEE program scientist from NASA HQ, said during a conference call on Thursday.
The second goal of LADEE is to answer a longstanding question of NASA scientists: “Was lunar dust, electrically charged by sunlight, responsible for the pre-sunrise glow above the lunar horizon detected during several Apollo missions?”
LADEE will do its data collection while orbiting the moon, but will touch down once the mission is over.
“We terminate the mission by intentionally crashing into the lunar surface, taking science on the way down,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said on the call.
So let’s just say LADEE’s ‘landing’ won’t be quite as triumphant as that of Curiosity.