The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Technology

August 22, 2013

NASA Ames readies spacecraft to study moon'€™s atmosphere

Associated Press — SAN JOSE, Calif.€” The moon will soon become a very busy place, as robotic prospectors descend to search for valuables.

But before the crowds arrive, NASA Ames scientists will manage a mission to study the moon€™s still-serene atmosphere, using a low-cost spacecraft that launches from Virginia on Friday night, Sept. 6.

Plans were unveiled at a Thursday news briefing in the nation€™s capital about the $280 million mission, called Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE. It is the first spacecraft designed, developed, built, integrated and tested at NASA Ames, based at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif.

€œThere are a lot of people with their fingers crossed, hoping for the best€”and excited to see their baby fly,€ said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager.

In its unusually low orbit around the moon€™s equator, the craft will float through the thin envelope of atmosphere that surrounds the moon, studying the properties of this environment and lunar dust.

This will be important information for future lunar explorers, so they know what to expect before they set up their first outposts.

Entrepreneurs are in a race to win the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which will be awarded to the first privately funded team to place a robot on the Moon€™s surface that can trek 1,500 feet and transmit back high-definition video. The international €œMoon Express€ contest€”spearheaded by former Microsoft innovator Naveen Jain and Mayfield venture capitalist Barney Pell€”is expected to open the gates for other commercial missions.

But such missions kick up a lot of dust, contaminated by fuel and other chemicals. It can take up to three months for the moon€™s surface to settle down after a landing.

€œNow is a good time to go and look at it while it is in pristine state,€ said Sarah Noble, a LADEE program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. €œBecause the moon€™s atmosphere is so delicate and thin, it is easily disturbed by spacecraft landings.€

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