Image Credit: NASA

Meet LADEE (pronounced laddie), otherwise known as the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. This probe marks NASA’s newest mission to the Moon with a mission to study the lunar atmosphere and conditions that exist near the lunar surface.

 

LADEE will make the first comprehensive analysis of the lunar atmosphere and help scientists back on Earth determine some important things about it… like its basic composition. This might come as news to some of you, but the Moon, Earth’s only natural satellite, does have an atmosphere. It’s MUCH thinner than Earth’s, about one hundred trillionth the density of Earth’s atmosphere (at sea level). To give you an idea of how thin that is, the Moon’s atmosphere is estimated to have about 80,000 atoms per cubic centimeter. For the record, at sea level, a cubic centimeter of air on Earth contains about 2*10E19 molecules and atoms – that’s a 2 followed by 19 zeros.

 

Image Credit: NASA

For practical purposes, the moon’s atmosphere is nonexistent. Spacecraft don’t have to worry about air friction, weather doesn’t exist, and people fare just as well exposed to the lunar surface as we do in deep space. From a planetary science perspective, the Moon’s atmosphere is tenuous enough that it doesn’t retain any measurable amount of radiation from the Sun. The atmosphere isn’t layered like Earth’s is and the lunar atmosphere is also constantly blasted off into space due to solar winds; so it requires constant replenishing. The moon might also have a cloud of electrostatically-levitated moon dust hovering on the surface like little angry gnats that want to make your life miserable (the coarse lunar dust is much more hostile than Earth’s pleasant and eroded equivalent).

 

LADEE will be equipped with all sorts of snazzy gear to study the moon. The Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer will help us analyze light that passes through material around the moon. The Lunar Dust Experiment will scoop some of that electrostatically-levitated dust floating about in the lunar atmosphere and help us answer some questions about the nature of the dust’s static charge (in addition, studying this dust could shed light on some phenomena the Apollo Astronauts saw). The Neutral Mass Spectrometer will measure the consistency of the lunar atmosphere and track changes in it while the moon orbits Earth and while other space-events happen (such as solar flares). Finally, the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration is a demonstration technology (no kidding!). The goal of this technology is to demonstrate the ability to communicate with spacecraft using lasers (instead of radio). Ideally, this technology would allow communications reaching broadband speeds between LADEE and NASA (which would help with the transfer of data in future robotic and manned missions).

 

Image Credit: BMG

LADEE launched in early September and was the first deep-space mission to launch from the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, so hopefully that goes smoothly. LADEE will take about 30 days to get to the moon and will then proceed with a 30 day diagnostic and checkout period to ensure its systems are working as expected. Then, 60 days after launch, LADEE will start it’s 100 day science mission to study the lunar environment.


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