Moon Mission to Continue

This is an artist’s depiction of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory in space with the moon in the distance. Image Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry

NASA has announced a 28-day extension to the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission. The extension will give the spacecraft a chance to gather data from low altitudes in the Moon’s atmosphere and through an additional lunar cycle.

LADEE was able to add days to its mission calendar because the launch and maneuvers that brought the car-sized probe into lunar orbit were so accurate that, in the end, the spacecraft had fuel to spare.

"This extension represents a tremendous increase in the amount of science data returned from the mission," said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in a recent press release.

Boom Goes the Moon

Unfortunately, the added 28 days will be the closing chapter in the LADEE mission.

"There is no chance of another mission extension," Hine told Astrobiology Magazine. "The final maneuevers will consume all of the available propellant."

On January 5th of this year, LADEE completed its 1000th lunar orbit – but the spacecraft can’t keep going forever. LADEE is now scheduled to complete its mission with a spectacular impact into the lunar surface on or around April 21, 2014.

LRO imaged LADEE, about 5.6 miles 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.) Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

"We plan to gather as much low altitude science data on the way down as possible, as the instruments will see altitudes lower than any before during the mission," Hine told Astrobiology Magazine. "We have no plans to gather data from the impact event itself, as that will happen on the Lunar far side. We will not have communications or visibility at that moment."

Mission Details

LADEE launched from Earth on September 6, 2013, and arrived at the Moon a month later on October 6. The robotic spacecraft then entered an equatorial science orbit on November 20, 2013. Since then, LADEE has been circling the Moon’s equator at a rapid pace, passing from lunar day to lunar night roughly every two hours. The mission extension will allow LADEE to dip further into the Moon’s thin atmosphere (or exosphere) than ever before.

"One cool thing about this extension is that we plan to fly LADEE at only a few kilometers above the lunar surface," said LADEE project scientist Rick Elphic in the NASA press release. "This will be much lower than we’ve been before."

The Moon and Astrobiology

The Moon is not thought to be a location in the Solar System capable of supporting life as we know it, but lunar research is still valuable to astrobiologists. Studying the Moon can yield clues about how rocky bodies form and evolve, and can also help us understand if and how the Moon affects the habitability of Earth.

LADEE has been measuring chemicals in the lunar atmosphere and analyzing dust samples. Data gathered by the mission will help astrobiologists understand the nature of other rocky bodies, including asteroids and planets like Mercury.

This animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) with a computer-generated image of LADEE. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

A Portrait of Precision Timing

In other recent events at the Moon, the mission teams behind NASA’s two active lunar orbiter missions recently pulled off a pretty amazing stunt. With some truly precise planning, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was able to snap a photograph of LADEE as the two spacecraft cruised near each other.

LADEE orbits the Moon at the equator in an east-west direction. LRO, on the other hand, flies around the Moon’s poles from south to north. In order for LADEE to have its portrait taken against the spectacular lunar backdrop, the two spacecraft had to be perfectly timed in their maneuvers to place LADEE beneath LRO. In the end, LRO was able to snap the picture at a 34 degree angle, capturing LADEE as it flew past.

LRO was NASA’s first mission to the Moon since the Lunar Prospector of 1998. LRO launched in September of 2009 and has been returning data ever since.

For more details about NASA’s lunar photoshoot, view the press release here.

The LRO mission is managed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. LADEE is managed by the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) in Moffett Field, California.


NASA’s LADEE Spacecraft Begins Science Operations, Published on Nov 22, 2013. Credit: NASA Ames