NASA’s Highly Productive LADEE Dust Explorer Probe Crashes into the Moon as Planned

NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiting dust and atmosphere explorer probe has bitten the dust and crashed into the Moon’s surface exactly as planned following a fabulously successful and groundbreaking science mission that exceeded all expectations.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the far side of the Moon sometime overnight between 12:30-1:22 a.m. EDT, Friday, April 18 (9:30 and 10:22 p.m. PDT, Thursday, April 17) according to a NASA statement.

Running low on fuel and unable to continue any further science observations, the couch sized spacecraft was intentionally plunged into the rugged lunar surface at a spot designed to keep it far away from disturbing any of the historic Apollo manned lunar landing sites or unmanned surveyors on the Moon’s near side.

LADEE_Poster_01

Mission controllers at NASA’s Ames Research Center allowed LADEE’s orbit to naturally decay following the conclusion of the probes extended mission in the final low orbit science phase.

The probe was likely smashed violently to smithereens and mostly vaporized from the heat generated upwards of several hundred degrees. Any surviving debris may be buried in shallow crater formed by the impact.

“At the time of impact, LADEE was traveling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour – about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet,” said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at Ames, in a NASA statement.

“There’s nothing gentle about impact at these speeds – it’s just a question of whether LADEE made a localized craterlet on a hillside or scattered debris across a flat area. It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created.”

The powerful NAC telescopic camera aboard NASA’s still orbiting Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will be directed in coming months to try and photograph the impact site after engineers pinpoint the likely crash site.

LRO has already imaged LADEE while both were co-orbiting in different lunar orbits.

This dissolve  animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE  captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE .  LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit:  NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

This dissolve animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE . LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

After completing its primary science mission in March, the already ultra low altitude of the lunar orbiting probe was reduced even further so that it was barely skimming just 2 kilometers (1 mile) above the pockmarked lunar surface.

Such a low altitude thus enabled LADEE to gather unprecedented science measurements of the Moon’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and dust particles since the species would be present at a higher concentration.

Lots of fuel is required to maintain LADEE’s orbit due to the uneven nature of the Moon’s global gravity field.

The final engine firing was commanded on April 11 to ensure a far side impact and the safety of all the historic lunar landing sites.

“LADEE also survived the total lunar eclipse on April 14 to 15. This demonstrated the spacecraft’s ability to endure low temperatures and a drain on batteries as it, and the moon, passed through Earth’s deep shadow,” said NASA

LADEE was launched on Sept. 6, 2013 from NASA Wallops in Virginia on a science mission to investigate the composition and properties of the Moon’s pristine and extremely tenuous atmosphere, or exosphere, and untangle the mysteries of its lofted lunar dust dating back to the Apollo Moon landing era.

All those objectives and more were accomplished during its nearly half year investigating Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6, 2013 amidst the ridiculous government shutdown that negatively affected a number of science missions funded across the US federal government.

The science mission duration had initially been planned to last approximately 100 days and finish with a final impact on the Moon on about March 24th.

NASA granted LADEE a month long extension since the residual rocket fuel was more than anticipated due to the expertise of LADEE’s navigation engineers and the precision of the launch atop the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket and orbital insertion.

“It’s bittersweet knowing we have received the final transmission from the LADEE spacecraft after spending years building it in-house at Ames, and then being in constant contact as it circled the moon for the last several months,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames.

The 844 pound (383 kg) robot explorer was assembled at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and is a cooperative project with NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.

The $280 million probe is built on a revolutionary ‘modular common spacecraft bus’, or body, that could dramatically cut the cost of exploring space and also be utilized on space probes to explore a wide variety of inviting targets in the solar system.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing LADEE, Chang’e-3, Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Mars rover and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA Announces ‘Take the Plunge’ Contest – Guess when LADEE Hits the Moon – Soon!

You can enter NASA’s ‘Take the Plunge’ contest and guess LADEE’s impending lunar impact date, expected on or before April 21, 2014. Credit: NASA
Contest entry details below – deadline soon[/caption]

When will LADEE hit the Moon for its looming end of mission finale?

NASA’s resoundingly successful LADEE lunar dust exploring mission is nearly out of gas – and needs your help, now!

With its inevitable doom approaching, NASA needs you to summon your thoughts and is challenging you to participate in a ‘Take the Plunge’ contest – figuratively not literally – and guess LADEE’s impending impact date.

LADEE, which stand for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, will smack violently into the Moon and scatter into zillions of bits and pieces sometime in the next two and a half weeks, on or before about April 21.

But exactly when will it impact the lunar surface? NASA wants to hear your best guess!

The ‘Take the Plunge’ contest was announced by NASA today, April 4, at a media briefing.

For more information about the challenge and how to enter, visit: http://socialforms.nasa.gov/ladee

This dissolve  animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE  captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE .  LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit:  NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
This dissolve animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE . LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Between now and its inevitable doom, mission controllers will command LADEE to continue gathering groundbreaking science.

And it will do so at an even lower attitude that it orbits today by firing its orbit maneuvering thrusters tonight and this weekend.

The couch sized probe seeks to eek out every last smidgeon of data about the Moons ultra tenuous dust and atmospheric environment from an ultra low altitude just a few miles (km) above the pockmarked lunar surface.

But because the moon’s gravity field is so uneven, the probes thrusters must be frequently fired to keep it on course and prevent premature crashes.

“The moon’s gravity field is so lumpy, and the terrain is so highly variable with crater ridges and valleys that frequent maneuvers are required or the LADEE spacecraft will impact the moon’s surface,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames.

“Even if we perform all maneuvers perfectly, there’s still a chance LADEE could impact the moon sometime before April 21, which is when we expect LADEE’s orbit to naturally decay after using all the fuel onboard.”

LADEE will fly as low as fly approximately 1 to 2 miles (2 to 3 kilometers) above the surface.

Everyone of all ages is eligible to enter NASA’s “Take the Plunge: LADEE Impact Challenge.”

The submissions deadline is 3 p.m. PDT Friday, April 11.

NASA says that winners post impact. They will receive a commemorative, personalized certificate from the LADEE program via email.

Series of LADEE star tracker images features the lunar terrain.  Credit: NASA Ames
Series of LADEE star tracker images features the lunar terrain. Credit: NASA Ames

Watch for my upcoming story on LADEE’s science accomplishments and what’s planned for her final days.

LADEE was launched on Sept. 6, 2013 from NASA Wallops in Virginia on a science mission to investigate the composition and properties of the Moon’s pristine and extremely tenuous atmosphere, or exosphere, and untangle the mysteries of its lofted lunar dust dating back to the Apollo Moon landing era.

Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The science mission duration had initially been planned to last approximately 100 days and finish with a final impact on the Moon on about March 24th.

NASA granted LADEE a month long extension since the residual rocket fuel is more than anticipated due to the expertise of LADEE’s navigation engineers and the precision of the launch atop the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket and orbital insertion.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing LADEE, Chang’e-3, Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Mars rover and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6.

Ken Kremer

Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s LADEE Probe Starts Science Study of Thin Lunar Atmosphere and Dusty Mystery

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) has descended to its planned low altitude orbit and begun capturing science data on its ground breaking mission to study the Moon’s ultra tenuous atmosphere and dust using a spacecraft based on a revolutionary new design aimed at speeding development and cutting costs.

LADEE set sail for Earth’s nearest neighbor during a spectacular night time launch atop the maiden flight of an Air Force Minotaur V rocket on Sept. 6 from NASA’s Wallops Island launch facility on Virginia’s Eastern shore.

The flawless launch thrilled spectators up and down virtually the entire US East coast region and yielded many memorable snapshots.

Following a month long voyage and three and a half long looping orbits of the Earth, LADEE successfully fired its main engine for 4 minutes and 12 seconds on Oct. 6 and successfully entered lunar orbit, Dawn McIntosh, LADEE deputy project manager at NASA Ames Research Center, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview.

A series of engine firings over the past month gradually circularized and lowered LADEE into its final science orbit around our Moon while engineers checked out the spacecraft during the commissioning phase of the mission.

The do or die initial Lunar Orbit Insertion burn (LOI-1) allowed LADEE to be captured into a highly elliptical, equatorial lunar orbit, said McIntosh.

Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Two additional LOI burns on Oct. 6 and Oct 9 lowered LADEE to an approximately 4 hour orbit with a periapsis altitude of 234 Kilometers (km) and apoapsis altitude of 250 km” McIntosh told me.

The trio of LOI main engine firings used up most of LADEE’s precious on board fuel.

“LADEE launched with 134.5 kilograms (kg) of fuel. Post LOI-3, 80% of our fuel has been consumed,” said McIntosh.

“Additional orbit-lowering maneuvers with the orbital control system (OCS) and reaction control system (RCS) of approximately 40 seconds were used to get LADEE into the science orbit.

The spacecraft finally entered its planned two hour science orbit around the moon’s equator on Nov. 20.

Its flying at an extremely low altitude ranging from merely eight to 37 miles (12-60 kilometers) above the moon’s surface.

By circling in this very low altitude equatorial orbit, the washing machine sized probe will make frequent passes crossing from lunar day to lunar night enabling it to precisely measure changes and processes occurring within the moon’s tenuous atmosphere while simultaneously sniffing for uplifted lunar dust in the lunar sky.

The remaining fuel will be used to maintain LADEE’s orbit during the approximately 100 day long science mission. The mission length is dictated by the residual fuel available for thruster firings.

LADEE Science Instrument locations
LADEE Science Instrument locations

The purpose of LADEE is to collect data that will inform scientists in unprecedented detail about the ultra thin lunar atmosphere, environmental influences on lunar dust and conditions near the surface. In turn this will lead to a better understanding of other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond.

“A thorough understanding of the characteristics of our lunar neighbor will help researchers understand other small bodies in the solar system, such as asteroids, Mercury, and the moons of outer planets,” said Sarah Noble, LADEE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

By studying the raised dust, scientists also hope to solve a 40 year old mystery – Why did the Apollo astronauts and early unmanned landers see a glow of rays and streamers at the moon’s horizon stretching high into the lunar sky.

The $280 million probe is built on a revolutionary ‘modular common spacecraft bus’, or body, that could dramatically cut the cost of exploring space and also be utilized on space probes to explore a wide variety of inviting targets in the solar system.

“LADEE is the first in a new class of interplanetary exploration missions,” NASA Ames Director Worden told Universe Today. “It will study the pristine moon to study significant questions.”

“This is probably our last best chance to study the pristine Moon before there is a lot of human activity there changing things.”

LADEE_Poster_01

The 844 pound (383 kg) robot explorer was assembled at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and is a cooperative project with NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.

LADEE arrived at the Moon last month in the midst of the US government shutdown – which negatively impacted a host of other NASA missions. Only a ‘skeleton crew’ was available.

“All burns went super well,” Worden told me. And he is extremely proud of the entire team of “dedicated” professional men and women who made it possible during the shutdown.

“It says a lot about our people’s dedication and capability when a skeleton crew’ can get a new spacecraft into lunar orbit and fully commissioned in the face of a shutdown!” Worden said to Universe Today.

Now the real science begins for LADEE and the team.

Stay tuned here for continuing LADEE news

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 22-25: “SpaceX launch, MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM