Robotic explorer blasts off to Moon for unmanned mission
Nasa's newest robotic explorer has rocketed into space in an unprecedented moonshot from Virginia in the US.
The LADEE spacecraft, which is charged with studying the lunar atmosphere and dust, soared aboard an unmanned Minotaur rocket.
It was a change of venue for Nasa, which normally launches Moon missions from Cape Canaveral, Florida. But it provided a rare light show along the US east coast for those blessed with clear skies. Nasa expected the launch from Virginia's Eastern Shore to be visible, weather permitting, as far south as South Carolina, as far north as Maine and as far west as Pittsburgh.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, is taking a roundabout path to the Moon, making three huge laps around Earth before getting close enough to pop into lunar orbit.
Unlike the quick three-day Apollo flights to the Moon, LADEE will need a full month to reach Earth's closest neighbour. An Air Force Minotaur V rocket, built by Orbital Sciences, provided the ride from Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility.
LADEE, which is the size of a small car, is expected to reach the Moon on October 6.
Scientists want to learn the composition of the Moon's ever-so-delicate atmosphere and how it might change over time. Another puzzle, dating back decades, is whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface.
The $280m Moon-orbiting mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the Moon for LADEE.
The 844-pound spacecraft has three science instruments as well as laser communication test equipment that could revolutionise data relay. Nasa hopes to eventually replace its traditional radio systems with laser communications, which would mean faster bandwidth using significantly less power and smaller devices.
"There's no question that as we send humans farther out into the solar system, certainly to Mars," that laser communications will be needed to send high-definition and 3D video, said Nasa's science mission chief, John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.