Nasa launches spacecraft LADEE to investigate levitating moon dust

LADEE probe takes off successfully in latest US mission to the Moon

Nasa’s newest unmanned robotic explorer rocketed into space late last night, giving spectators along the east coast of the US a Friday night to remember.

Sky-watchers from Boston down to Baltimore said flames spewing from the rocket’s tail could be seen clearly against the night sky, in what is Nasa’s first deep space blast-off from from Wallops Flight Facility centre in Virginia.

It was a change of venue for the US space agency, which usually launch moon mission from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

“Godspeed on your journey to the moon, LADEE,” Nasa’s Launch Control announced, while light controllers applauded and exchanged high-fives following the successful lift-off.

Nasa confirmed its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) had successfully gone into orbit and would complete three increasingly distant laps around the Earth before getting close enough to reach lunar orbit.

LADEE, which is the size of a small car, is designed to investigate the remarkably thin atmosphere of the moon. Our nearest satellite has an atmosphere thought to be only 1/100,000th the density of Earth’s atmosphere.

The LADEE mission, which cost $280m (£180m), also hopes to get an insight into the odd behaviour of moondust, which appears to levitate from the surface and has mystified scientists and astronauts for decades.

The Apollo space team reported that the chaffing moondust tended to be sticky and reported concerns that if breathed in the material could cause respiratory problems.

Moondust, which consists of remnant rock shattered through eons of meteorite impacts, is considered potentially hazardous by scientists.

Butler Hine, LADEE's project manager said:

“It’s not like terrestrial dust. Terrestrial dust is like talcum powder. On the Moon, it’s very rough. It’s kinda evil. It follows electric field lines; it works its way into equipment. One of the questions about dust on the Moon is an engineering question: how do you design things so that they can survive the dust environment.”

LADEE, which will not actually land on the moon’s surface but hover 20km above it, will spend 100 days making scientific observations after reaching its destination in two months' time.

The mission will end with LADEE making a suicide plunge onto the surface of the moon.

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