NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, observatory has been approved for a 28-day mission extension. The spacecraft is now expected to impact the lunar surface on or around April 21, 2014, depending on the final trajectory.
The extension provides an opportunity for the satellite to gather an additional full lunar cycle worth of very low-altitude data to help scientists unravel the mysteries of the moon’s atmosphere.
“The launch vehicle performance and orbit capture burns using LADEE’s onboard engines were extremely accurate, so the spacecraft had significant propellant remaining to enable extra science,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., where the mission was designed, built, tested and its day-to-day operations are managed. “This extension represents a tremendous increase in the amount of science data returned from the mission.”
The small, car-sized robotic probe launched Sept. 6, 2013, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., and has been orbiting the moon since Oct. 6. On Nov. 10, LADEE began gathering science data and on Nov. 20, the spacecraft entered its science orbit around the moon’s equator at an altitude of eight to 37 miles (12-60 kilometers) above the surface; a unique position that allows the spacecraft to frequently pass from lunar day to lunar night, approximately every two hours. This vantage provides data about the full scope of changes and processes occurring within the moon’s tenuous atmosphere.
“The science team has already established a baseline of data for the tenuous lunar atmosphere, or exosphere, and dust impacts,” said Rick Elphic LADEE project scientist at Ames. “One cool thing about this extension is that we plan to fly LADEE at only a few kilometers above the lunar surface. This will be much lower than we’ve been before.”