NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) satellite was successfully launched 11.27 p.m. (EDT), Friday, firing from the Wallops Flight Facility (eastern Virginia) aboard the Orbital Science Corporation’s Minotaur V rocket. As LADEE soars to ascension, NASA even hopes amateur astronomers will embrace the lunar adventure, and provide the space agency with information about meteor impact events on the lunar surface over the coming months. NASA hopes to identify any potential atmospheric changes using the LADEE spacecraft, following some of these observed impacts.
The process was overseen by Orbital Sciences Corporation, one of the top innovators in space technologies, who has previously dispatched four other Minotaur rockets from the facility.
The spacecraft has now commenced its 30-day venture to the moon, which will assume an elliptical orbit, ultimately reaching a much tighter orbit, at a distance of 31 miles from the lunar surface. The mission will cost $280 million dollars, and will seek to investigate laser communications and the properties of the lunar atmosphere.
Orbital Science’s Senior Vice President of Orbital’s Small Space Launch Vehicle company, Lou Amorosi, boasted about the launch success and Orbital’s general track record:
“This mission further demonstrates the capabilities of our well-established Minotaur rocket family and our commitment to providing reliable access to space.”
Orbital have managed to successfully deploy a total of 23 Minotaur rockets, starting from early 2000, with an unblemished success rate. Orbital is involved in the design, integration and analysis of a number of Minotaur rockets, and organizes their subsequent launch.
NASA is hoping LADEE will revolutionize space communications, by deploying a laser transmission system, capable of facilitating far superior bandwidth and less atmospheric interference. Laser communications techniques are far superior to the current generation of radio frequency (RF) systems, which are prone to disturbance from atmospheric conditions, require greater power to use, and offer much lower bandwidth.
NASA have installed the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD), which will use a quarter less power than the most advanced RF systems and can beam back six times more data from the moon, which constitutes a bandwidth of over 100 high definition channels.
There are, however, huge technical issues to overcome. Laser communications rely upon pinpoint accuracy. The data will be sent to one of three ground telescope sites, over an enormous distance (240,000 miles). Don Cornwell, the LLCD operations manager, states that managing to successfully pinpoint the correct target location is the “… equivalent of a golfer hitting a ‘hole-in-one’ from a distance of almost five miles.”
Cornwell also describes the hugely exciting technological innovations that architects, working from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, have managed to implement to make this laser solution a viable and effective method for communications. Small vibrations from the spacecraft could throw the pointing and tracking procedure off balance, wasting the mission’s potential; the team have, therefore, worked hard to eliminate these slight movements to certify improved accuracy.
NASA’s LADEE Technologies
LADEE has been armed with a vast array of accomplished features, including visible light and ultraviolet spectrometers, a neutral mass spectrometer (NMS) device and Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) equipment. The various spectrometers will provide NASA the ability to determine the different components of the lunar atmosphere, as well as miniscule atmospheric changes that materialize over the course of numerous lunar cycles.
However, the most exciting piece of technology is the LDEX equipment, with which NASA aims to solve a longstanding lunar mystery. During the team’s Surveyor 7 mission of 1968, astronauts described witnessing a spectacular glow on the horizon, which the space agency were not able to definitively explain. LDEX will analyze the dust particles within the lunar atmosphere to establish whether this phenomenon was the result of UV light inducing an electrical charge in the afore-said dust.
Speaking to Space.com, Sarah Noble suggests this is the ideal time to investigate the moon dust, as the lunar surface has remained relatively undisturbed by space exploration. However, she maintains, with a number of private and government-backed space programs starting to plan future lunar landings, the moon won’t remain this way for too much longer.
Here’s hoping, following LADEE’s soar to ascension, atop the Minotaur V rocket, NASA’s lunar adventure can solve the 50-year-old mystery from their previous Surveyor 7 mission. What’s more, their new laser comms system could yield very exciting applications for future space missions, the likes of which has never been seen.
By: James Fenner