NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) will perform a relatively short mission to the moon in order to study conditions near the lunar surface and its atmosphere. This information will help scientists understand other bodies in the solar system like asteroids and moons of the most distant planets.
LADEE was launched at 11:27 pm EDT off the coast of Virginia and the event was visible to tens of millions of people. Shortly after launch when LADEE (pronounced like “laddie”) detached from the rocket, there was a minor issue with the reaction wheels being turned off due to a safeguarding program. The program was disabled and LADEE’s reaction wheels came back online and are working properly.
After about one month of travel LADEE began its orbit. This was monitored with a skeleton crew as 97% of NASA’s staff was furloughed in the recent shutdown of the United States government.
LADEE just made space communication history by using lasers to communicate with Earth from its lunar orbit faster than ever before. Pulsed laser beams sent data 239,000 miles (384,633 kilometers) back to Earth's surface at a rate of 622 megabits per second. For comparison, 4G LTE downloads run about 10-17 megabits per second.
LADEE’s mission is broken up into five phases: pre-launch; launch, ascent & acquisition; commissioning; science operations; and extended mission or end of life.
During its 100 science day mission, LADEE will inspect the atmosphere and dust environment on the moon from a variety of altitudes. Eventually, it will go as low as 12 miles (19 km) off the surface of the moon to collect information. Following the science phase, if it does not receive an extended mission, LADEE’s altitude will be gradually lowered until it finally comes to rest on the lunar surface, though it will not be targeted to land in any particular place.
The spacecraft itself is unique in that it was not custom created like many other spacecraft. It was fashioned from parts that can be created on an assembly line for a variety of different applications, which made it considerably less expensive to manufacture. This approach will allow NASA to create spacecraft that look relatively similar but can be customized based on what is needed for a specific mission. LADEE weighs in at about 844 pounds (383 kilograms) and uses around 295 Watts of power.
LADEE has many sophisticated tools. It will use an Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer (UVS) to ascertain the moon’s atmosphere. The lunar atmosphere is not consistent and has been described as “bumpy.” Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS) will record inconsistencies in the atmosphere as the moon travels through different environments and completes several orbits. The Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) will analyze particles of dust suspended in the lunar atmosphere. This analysis will help determine whether lunar dust was charged by UV light from the sun and caused a glow on the horizon before sunrise. This question has stumped scientists since the days of the Apollo missions.