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 Extends LADEE Dust Explorer for Bonus Lunar Science

Depiction of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory as it approaches lunar orbit.Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry
LADEE will now orbit far lower than ever before – details below![/caption]

LADEE, NASA’s latest lunar orbiter, is getting a new lease on life and will live a little longer to study the mysteries of the body’s tenuous atmosphere, or exosphere, and make surprising new discoveries while hugging Earth’s nearest neighbor even tighter than ever before, the team told Universe Today.

NASA has announced that the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission will be granted a month long extension since the residual rocket fuel is more than anticipated due to the expertise of LADEE’s navigation engineers.

This is great news because it means LADEE’s three research instruments will collect a big bonus of science measurements about the pristine lunar atmosphere and dust during an additional 28 days in an ultra tight low orbit skimming around the Moon.

And the extension news follows closely on the heels of LADEE being photographed in lunar orbit for the first time by a powerful camera aboard NASA’s five year old Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), her orbital NASA sister – detailed here.

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

LADEE is currently flying around the moon’s equator at altitudes ranging barely eight to 37 miles (12-60 kilometers) above the surface which crosses over from lunar day to lunar night approximately every two hours.

During the extended mission lasting an additional full lunar cycle, LADEE will fly even lower to within a few miles (km) thereby allowing scientists an exceptional vantage point to unravel the mysteries of the moon’s atmosphere.

Just how low will LADEE fly?

I asked Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

“We will be taking LADEE from its nominal 20 to 50 kilometer periapsis right down to the treetops — we want to get data from 5 kilometers or even less!” Elphic told me.

“So far we’ve been keeping a healthy margin for spacecraft safety, but after the nominal mission is completed, we will relax those requirements in the interest of new science.”

With the measurements collected so far the science team has already established a baseline of data for the tenuous lunar atmosphere, or exosphere, and dust impacts, says NASA.

Therefore the LADEE team is free to fly the spacecraft much lower than ever before.

And why even go to lower altitudes? I asked Elphic.

Basically because the team hopes to see changes in the particle density and composition.

“The density depends on the species. For instance, argon-40 is heavier than neon-20, and has a lower scale height. That means we should see a big increase in argon compared to neon.”

“And we may see the heavier species for the first time at these really low altitudes.”

“It’s remotely possible we’ll see krypton, for instance.”

“But the real boon will be in the dust measurements.”

“LDEX (The Lunar Dust Experiment) will be measuring dust densities very close to the surface, and we will see if something new shows up. Each time we’ve dropped our orbit down to lower altitudes, we’ve been surprised by new things,” Elphic told Universe Today.

The Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS) instrument will measure the identity and abundances of the exospheres constituents, such as argon, neon and krypton.

LADEE Science Instrument locations
LADEE Science Instrument locations

With the extension, LADEE is expected to continue capturing data in orbit until about April 21, 2014, depending on the usage of the declining on board fuel to feed its maneuvering thrusters.

“LADEE is investigating the moons tenuous exosphere, trace outgases like the sodium halo and lofted dust at the terminator,” Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director at NASA HQ, told me earlier in an exclusive interview.

“The spacecraft has a mass spectrometer to identify the gases, a physical dust detector and an imager to look at scattered light from the dust. These processes also occur at asteroids.”

The Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) recorded dust impacts as soon as its cover opened, says NASA and is also seeing occasional bursts of dust impacts caused by meteoroid showers, such as the Geminids.

By studying the raised lunar 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 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.

And the team had told me before launch that an extension was rather unlikely since the spacecraft would be flying in such a very low science orbit of about 50 kilometers altitude above the moon that it will require considerable fuel to maintain.

“LADEE is limited by the amount of onboard fuel required to maintain orbit,” Doug Voss, launch manager, Wallops, told me.

So what accounts for the extension?

Basically it’s because of the expert navigation by NASA’s engineers and the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket and upper stages following the spectacular night time LADEE blastoff from NASA Wallops, VA, on Sept. 6, 2013 and subsequent insertion into lunar orbit.

“The launch vehicle performance and orbit capture burns using LADEE’s onboard engines were extremely accurate, so the spacecraft had significant propellant remaining to enable extra science,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at NASA’s Ames where the mission was designed, built, tested, in a NASA statement.

“This extension represents a tremendous increase in the amount of science data returned from the mission.”

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

“LADEE launched with 134.5 kilograms of fuel. After the third lunar orbit insertion burn (LOI-3), 80% of our fuel had been consumed,” said Dawn McIntosh, LADEE deputy project manager at NASA Ames Research Center, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“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.

And LADEE’s orbit capture was accomplished amidst the ridiculous US government shutdown with a skeleton crew.

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

So LADEE’s orbital lifetime depends entirely on the remaining quantity of rocket fuel.

“LADEE has about 20 kg of propellant remaining today,” Butler Hine told Universe Today.

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

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

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 Center Director Pete Worden told me in an interview. “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.”

To date LADEE has traveled over 1 million miles and in excess of 1200 equatorial orbits around the Moon.

LADEE is also searching for any changes caused to the exosphere and dust by the landing of China’s maiden Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu moon rover in December 2013.

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

Ken Kremer

LADEE_Poster_01

Paul Mahaffy, LADEE Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS) instrument, principal investigator, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss LADEE science at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Paul Mahaffy, LADEE Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument, principal investigator, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss LADEE science at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Close Encounters of the Lunar Kind – LRO images 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
Story updated[/caption]

A pair of NASA spacecraft orbiting Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor just experienced a brief ‘Close Encounter of the Lunar Kind’.

Proof of the rare orbital tryst has now been revealed by NASA in the form of spectacular imagery (see above and below) just released showing NASA’s recently arrived Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lunar orbiter being photographed by a powerful camera aboard NASA’s five year old Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – as the two orbiters met for a fleeting moment just two weeks ago.

See above a dissolve animation that compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE captured on Jan. 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled LADEE image.

All this was only made possible by a lot of very precise orbital calculations and a spacecraft ballet of sorts that had to be nearly perfectly choreographed and timed – and spot on to accomplish.

This subsection of the LRO image, expanded four times, shows the smeared view of LADEE against the lunar background..   LADEE is about 2 meters in the long direction. Lunar scene about 81 meter wide.  Credit:  NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
This subsection of the LRO image, expanded four times, shows the smeared view of LADEE against the lunar background. LADEE is about 2 meters in the long direction. Lunar scene about 81 meter wide. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Both sister orbiters were speeding along at over 3600 MPH (1,600 meters per second) while traveling perpendicularly to one another!

So the glimpse was short but sweet.

LADEE flies in an equatorial orbit (east-to-west) while LRO travels in a polar orbit (south-to-north). LADEE achieved lunar orbit on Oct. 6, 2013 amidst the federal government shutdown.

Thus their orbits align only infrequently.

The LRO orbiter did a pirouette to precisely point its high resolution narrow angle camera (NAC) while hurtling along in lunar orbit, barely 5.6 miles (9 km) above LADEE.

And it was all over in less than the wink of an eye!

LADEE entered LRO’s Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) field of view for 1.35 milliseconds and a smeared image of LADEE was snapped. LADEE appears in four lines of the LROC image, and is distorted right-to-left.

Both spacecraft are tiny – barely two meters in length.

“Since LROC is a pushbroom imager, it builds up an image one line at a time, thus catching a target as small and fast as LADEE is tricky!” wrote Mark Robinson, LROC principal investigator of Arizona State University.

So the fabulous picture was only possible as a result of close collaboration and extraordinary teamwork between NASA’s LADEE, LRO and LROC camera mission operations teams.

NASA’s LRO imaged NASA’s LADEE, about 5.6 miles (9 km) beneath it, at 8:11 p.m. EST on Jan. 14, 2014. (LROC NAC image M1144387511LR).  Image width is 821 meters, or about 898 yards.)   Credit:   NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
NASA’s LRO imaged NASA’s LADEE, about 5.6 miles (9 km) beneath it, at 8:11 p.m. EST on Jan. 14, 2014. (LROC NAC image M1144387511LR). Image width is 821 meters, or about 898 yards.) Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

LADEE passed directly beneath the LRO orbit plane a few seconds before LRO crossed the LADEE orbit plane, meaning a straight down LROC image would have just missed LADEE, said NASA.

LRO spacecraft (top) protected by gray colored blankets is equipped with 7 science instruments located at upper right side of spacecraft. LRO cameras are pointing to right. LRO is piggybacked atop NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft.  Payload fairing in background protects the spacecraft during launch and ascent. Credit: Ken Kremer
LRO spacecraft (top) protected by gray colored blankets is equipped with 7 science instruments located at upper right side of spacecraft. LRO cameras are pointing to right. LRO is piggybacked atop NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft. Payload fairing in background protects the spacecraft during launch and ascent. Credit: Ken Kremer

Therefore, LRO was rolled 34 degrees to the west so the LROC detector (one line) would be precisely oriented to catch LADEE as it passed beneath.

“Despite the blur it is possible to find details of the spacecraft. You can see the engine nozzle, bright solar panel, and perhaps a star tracker camera (especially if you have a correctly oriented schematic diagram of LADEE for comparison),” wrote Robinson in a description.

See the LADEE schematic in the lead image herein.

LADEE was launched 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.

Since LADEE is now more than halfway through its roughly 100 day long mission, timing was of the essence before the craft takes a death dive into the moon’s surface.

You can see a full scale model of LADEE at the NASA Wallops visitor center, which offers free admission.

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

LRO launched Sept. 18, 2009 from Cape Canaveral, Florida to conduct comprehensive investigations of the Moon with seven science instruments and search for potential landing sites for a return by human explorers. It has collected astounding views of the lunar surface, including the manned Apollo landing sites as well as a treasure trove of lunar data.

In addition to NASA’s pair of lunar orbiters, China recently soft landed two probes on the Moon.

So be sure to read my new story detailing how LRO took some stupendous Christmas time 2013 images of China’s maiden lunar lander and rover; Chang’e-3 and Yutu from high above- here.

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

…………….

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

Skeleton Crew gets LADEE in Orbit, Checked Out and Fires Revolutionary Laser During Gov’t Shutdown

NASA’s new LADEE spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit, is operating beautifully and has begun shooting its radical laser communications experiment despite having to accomplish a series of absolutely critical do-or-die orbital insertion engine firings with a “skeleton crew ” – all this amidst the NASA and US government shutdown, NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden told Universe Today in a LADEE mission exclusive.

During the two and a half week long NASA shutdown, engineers had to fire LADEE’s maneuvering thrusters three times over six days – first to brake into elliptical orbit about the Moon and then lower it significantly and safely into a circular commissioning orbit.

“All burns went super well,” Ames Center Director Worden told me exclusivly. 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.

“I’m really happy that everyone’s back.”

After achieving orbit, a pair of additional engine burns reduced LADEE’s altitude and period into its initial commissioning orbit and teams began the month long activation and instrument checkout phase.

“We are at the commissioning orbit of 250 km,” said Worden.

And to top all that off, LADEE’s quartet of science instruments are checked out and the ground – breaking laser communications experiment that will bring about a quantum leap in transmitting space science data has already begun its work!

“All instruments are fully checked out with covers deployed.”

“We’ve begun the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) tests and its working very well,” Worden explained.

NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter will firing its main engine on Oct. 6 to enter lunar orbit in the midst of the US government shutdown. Credit: NASA
NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter fired its main engine on Oct. 6 to enter lunar orbit in the midst of the US government shutdown. Credit: NASA

And that’s the whole point of the LADEE mission in the first place.

97% of NASA’s employees were furloughed during the utterly chaotic and wasteful partial shutdown of the US government that lasted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 17 and also temporarily threatened the upcoming launch of NASA’s next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter.

However, orbital mechanics follows the natural laws of the Universe, continues unabated and waits for no one in Washington, D.C.

NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno orbiter also flew by Earth amidst the DC shutdown showdown on Oct. 9 for a similarly critical do-or-die gravity assisted speed boost and trajectory targeting maneuver.

The stakes were extremely high for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission because the spacecraft was on course for the Moon and absolutely had to ignite its main engine on the Sunday morning of Oct. 6.

There were no second chances. If anything failed, LADEE would simply sail past the Moon with no hope of returning later.

So, mission controllers at NASA Ames commanded LADEE to ignite its main engine and enter lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following the spectacular Sept. 6 night launch from NASA’s Wallops Island spaceport in Virginia.

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 approximately four minute long burn know as Lunar Orbit Insertion burn 1 (LOI-1) began with LADEE’s arrival at the Moon following three and a half long looping orbits of the Earth.

LOI-1 changed the spacecrafts velocity by 329.8 meters/sec so that the couch sized probe could be captured by the Moon’s gravity and be placed into a 24 hour polar elliptical orbit.

The LOI-2 maneuver on Oct. 9 put LADEE into a 4-hour elliptic lunar orbit. The third and final LOI-3 burn occurred on Oct. 12, and put the spacecraft into the 2-hour commissioning orbit (roughly 235 Km x 250 Km), according to a NASA statement.

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 is the first NASA mission with a dedicated laser communications experiment,” said Don Cornwell, mission manager for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, during an interview with Universe Today at the LADEE launch.

“With the LLCD experiment, we’ll use laser communications to demonstrate at least six times more data rate from the moon than what we can do with a radio system with half the weight and 25 percent less power,” said Cornwell.

The LADEE satellite in lunar orbit.   The revolutionary modular science probe is equipped with a Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) that will attempt to show two-way laser communication beyond Earth is possible, expanding the possibility of transmitting huge amounts of data. This new ability could one day allow for 3-D High Definition video transmissions in deep space to become routine.  Credit: NASA
The LADEE satellite in lunar orbit. The revolutionary modular science probe is equipped with a Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) that will attempt to show two-way laser communication beyond Earth is possible, expanding the possibility of transmitting huge amounts of data. This new ability could one day allow for 3-D High Definition video transmissions in deep space to become routine. Credit: NASA

The LLCD will be operated for about 30 days during the time of the commissioning orbit period.

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.

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.”

Stay tuned here for continuing LADEE news

Ken Kremer

LADEE_Poster_01

LADEE Successfully Enters Lunar Orbit on Oct. 6 Amidst Government Shutdown

NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter will fire its main engine on Oct. 6 to enter lunar orbit in the midst of the US government shutdown. Credit: NASA
See the orbit insertion animation below[/caption]

Update Oct 6: LADEE fired its main engine this morning (Oct. 6) at 6:57 a.m. EDT and successfully achieved lunar orbit. Headline/story revised.

NASA’s trailblazing LADEE lunar spacecraft is set to ignite its main engine and enter lunar orbit on Sunday morning, Oct. 6 – if all goes well – following the spectacular Sept. 6 night launch from NASA’s Virginia spaceport.

And in a happenstance no one could have foreseen, the critical engine firing comes smack in the midst of the political chaos reigning in Washington D.C. that has shut down the US government, furloughed 97% of NASA’s employees, and temporarily threatened the upcoming launch of NASA’s next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter.

However, orbital mechanics waits for no one!

A source indicated that LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) mission operations were continuing leading up to the engine burn.

But there will be virtually a complete news blackout and little public information released due to the legal requirements of the shutdown.

NASA websites, which are amongst the most heavily trafficked, as well as NASA TV have been shuttered during the shutdown and the press office is likewise furloughed.

So it was do or die for LADEE with the four minute long braking thruster firing set to start on Oct. 6 at 6:57 a.m. EDT (10:57 UTC), so that the couch sized spacecraft is captured by the Moon’s gravity.

Fortunately, LADEE was deemed “essential” and a small team of engineers is working right now at mission control at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

If the had burn failed, LADEE will swing by the moon with no hope of returning. And this is being accomplished with a skeleton crew thanks to the government shutdown.

Here’s a video animation of orbital capture at the moon:


Video caption: This video shows the LADEE lunar orbit capture scheduled to take place at 10:57 UTC on 6 Oct. 2013. The main view is an Earth centered perspective showing the effect of the Moon’s gravity on the orbit and then how a Lunar orbit looks from the Earth. The inset view shows the same trajectory from the perspective of the Moon.

Dubbed LOI-1 (Lunar Orbit Insertion burn 1),it is designed to begin with LADEE’s arrival at the Moon after three and a half orbits of the Earth. It will change the spacecrafts velocity by 329.8 meters/sec.

LOI-1 is the first of three main engine maneuvers and will place LADEE into a 24 hour retrograde orbit, with a periselene altitude of 590 km (369 mi).

LOI-2 follows on Oct. 9 to place LADEE into a 4 hour orbit with a 250 km (156 mi) periselene altitude.

Finally LOI-3 on Oct. 12 places LADEE into a roughly circular 250 km (156 mi) orbit that initiates a 30 day commissioning phase as well as experiments using the on-board Lunar Laser Communications Experiment (LLCD) before the start of the missions science phase.

LADEE thundered to space atop the maiden launch of the five stage Minotaur V rocket on Sept. 6, blazing a spectacular trail to orbit from a beachside launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

This magnificent view of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter launched on Friday night Sept 6, on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from Virginia was captured by space photographer Ben Cooper perched atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launchphotography.com
This magnificent view of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter launched on Friday night Sept 6, on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from Virginia was captured by space photographer Ben Cooper perched atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launchphotography.com

The blastoff was easily visible to tens of millions of thrilled spectators up and down the eastern seaboard stretching from Maine to the Carolinas as a result of crystal clear skies and the night time liftoff.

The LADEE liftoff at 11:27 p.m. EDT marked the first space probe of any kind ever launched beyond Earth orbit from NASA Wallops, as well as being the first planetary science mission ever launched from Wallops.

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

Eventually the spacecraft will fly in a very low equatorial science orbit of about 50 kilometers (31 mi) altitude above the moon that will require considerable fuel to maintain. The science mission duration is approximately 100 days, limited by the amount of maneuvering fuel.

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.

It is equipped with a trio of science instruments whose purpose 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.

The goal of the $280 Million mission is to gain a thorough understanding of long-standing unknowns about the tenuous atmosphere, dust and surface interactions that will help scientists understand other planetary bodies as well.

The 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 Pete Worden told Universe Today in an interview. “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.”

Stay tuned here for continuing LADEE news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about LADEE, MAVEN, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Cygnus, Antares, SpaceX, Orion, the Gov’t shutdown and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 8: “NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”& “Curiosity and MAVEN updates”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

LADEE_Poster_01

How to See the Historic LADEE Nighttime Moon Shot on Sept. 6

Minotaur V rocket and LADEE spacecraft launch trajectory view as should be seen from atop the Empire State Building, NY, on Sept. 6, 2013 at 11:27 p.m. EDT – weather permitting.
See more launch trajectory viewing graphics below[/caption]

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA – An unprecedented spectacle is set to light up the skies this Friday night, Sept. 6, courtesy of NASA when America returns to the Moon with the history making nighttime launch of the LADEE lunar orbiter atop a retired and specially converted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from NASA’s Wallops Island facility on the Virginia shoreline.

Blastoff of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) Observatory atop the maiden flight of the powerful new Minotaur V rocket is slated for 11:27 p.m. EDT Sept. 6 from Launch Pad 0B along the Eastern Shore of Virginia at NASA Wallops.

Because it’s at night and lifting off from the most densely populated region of the United States, the flames spewing from the tail of Minotaur could be visible to tens of millions of distant spectators – weather permitting – who have never before witnessed such a rocket launch.

So you don’t have to be watching locally to join in the fun and excitement. And you can always watch the NASA TV webcast online on a smartphone or laptop.

Minotaur V rocket launch view as should be seen from Wright Brothers Memorial, Kitty Hawk, NC
Minotaur V rocket launch view as should be seen from Wright Brothers Memorial, Kitty Hawk, NC

The LADEE (pronounced ‘laddie’ not ‘lady’) launch is historic in many ways.

No space satellite has ever been launched to beyond Earth orbit from NASA’s Wallops’s launch base in Virginia, it’s the first flight to the Moon from Wallops, the first Minotaur V rocket launch based on the Peacekeeper missile, and it’s the first flight of the revolutionary new modular spacecraft design aimed at significantly cutting the cost of exploring space.

So although the very best views are available from local areas in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware just tens of miles away from the Wallops Island launch pad, magnificent viewing opportunities are available from a broad region up and down the East Coast and into the interior.

LADEE_Poster_01

Let’s look at some viewing maps courtesy of Orbital Sciences, the company responsible for assembling the Minotaur V and integrating it with the LADEE spacecraft – built by NASA’s Ames Research Center.

First up is the Maximum elevation map showing how high the rocket will be visible in degrees from the heavily populated US East Coast stretching from Maine to both Carolinas and into the industrial Midwest.

LADEE Minotaur V Launch – Maximum Elevation Map  The LADEE nighttime launch will be visible to millions of spectators across a wide area of the Eastern US -weather permitting. This map shows the maximum elevation (degrees above the horizon) that the Minotaur V rocket will reach during the Sep. 6, 2013 launch depending on your location along the US east coast. Credit: Orbital Sciences
LADEE Minotaur V Launch – Maximum Elevation Map
The LADEE nighttime launch will be visible to millions of spectators across a wide area of the Eastern US -weather permitting. This map shows the maximum elevation (degrees above the horizon) that the Minotaur V rocket will reach during the Sep. 6, 2013 launch depending on your location along the US east coast. Credit: Orbital Sciences

Herein are a series of graphics showing the Minotaur V trajectory and what you should see – during firings of the first three stages – from the perspective of standing on the ground or skyscrapers at a variety of popular destinations including the US Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Kitty Hawk, NC, Atlantic City, NJ, New York City, Cape Cod and more.

US Capitol
US Capitol
Cape Cod, MA
Cape Cod, MA
Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
New York City (Battery Park)
New York City (Battery Park)

The five stage Minotaur V rocket stands 80.6 feet (24.6 meters) tall, is 7.6 feet (2.3 m) in diameter and weighs 197,034 pounds (89,373 kilograms.

The first three stages of the Minotaur V are based on the nuclear armed Peacekeeper ICBM intercontinental ballistic missile built during the Cold War – now retired and refurbished by Orbital for peaceful uses. It’s literally beating swords into plowshares.

The 5th stage is a new addition and what makes this Minotaur a new rocket class. The added thrust is precisely what enables shooting for the Moon.

Minotaur V rocket launch view as should be seen from Atlantic City, NJ
Minotaur V rocket launch view as should be seen from Atlantic City, NJ

For anyone coming to the Wallops area for an eyewitness view of the launch, NASA worked with local officials to establish several viewing locations just 10 miles or so from the launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.

Visitors to the area may view the launch from Robert Reed Park on Chincoteague or Beach Road spanning the area between Chincoteague and Assateague Islands.

Both sites will feature a live countdown and broadcast and NASA personnel will be on hand to discuss the LADEE launch and goals of the mission.

A big-screen projector will broadcast live in Robert Reed Park beginning at 9:30 p.m.

“We’re excited about this partnership with the community in providing an enhanced launch experience to members of the public,” said Jeremy Eggers, public information officer for NASA Wallops in a statement. “The live countdown and launch broadcast will place people in mission control on launch night for what is already a historic mission for Wallops and the Eastern Shore.”

NASA TV starts a live broadcast of the launch at 9:30 p.m. on Sept 6 – available here: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

Minotaur V rocket with NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter unveiled at NASA Wallops launch pad.  Credit: NASA EDGE/Franklin Fitzgerald
Minotaur V rocket with NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter unveiled at NASA Wallops launch pad. Credit: NASA EDGE/Franklin Fitzgerald

The couch sized 844 pound (383 kg) robotic explorer is equipped with 3 science instruments and a laser technology demonstrator.

These include an ultraviolet and visible light spectrometer that will gather detailed information about the composition of the tenuous lunar atmosphere; a neutral mass spectrometer to measure variations in the lunar atmosphere over time; a laser dust experiment that will collect and analyze dust particle samples; and a laser communications experiment that will test the use of lasers in place of radio waves for high speed data communications with Earth.

Be sure to watch for my continuing LADEE and Antares launch reports from on site at NASA’s Wallops Launch Pads in sunny Virginia – reporting for Universe Today.

Ken Kremer

…………….
Learn more about LADEE, Cygnus, Antares, MAVEN, Orion, Mars rovers and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Sep 5/6/16/17: “LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

Oct 3: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars – (3-D)”, STAR Astronomy Club, Brookdale Community College & Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, NJ, 8 PM

Oct 8: “LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Close-up view of STAR 37FM 5th stage solid fuel motor of Minotaur V rocket at NASA Wallops rocket facility will propel LADEE into its lunar transfer orbit. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
LADEE’s Ticket to the Moon – 5th Stage of new Minotaur V rocket
Close-up view of STAR 37 5th stage solid fuel motor for inaugural Minotaur V rocket launch at NASA Wallops rocket facility will propel LADEE into its lunar transfer orbit. LADEE will be mounted on top and surrounded by the payload fairing attached at bottom ring. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com