Florida is finally getting some competition as the launchpad for lunar missions. Next week, NASA will send off a moon-bound probe from its facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, and if the night skies are clear, the rocket should be plenty visible from the Washington area.
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) a robotic surveying craft about the size of a small car, will take off Friday, September 6, in Wallops Island’s first mission that will exceed Earth’s orbit. The launch is scheduled for 11:27 PM, and about 50 seconds after takeoff, stargazers in DC and beyond should be able to spot the rocket as it arcs over the East Coast.
Once it reaches the moon, the LADEE will enter a continuous orbit and begin studying the infinitesimally thin lunar atmosphere to determine whether, in addition to trace gases, it also contains any dust from the surface. The mission’s goal is actually less mundane than that seems, though, and may actually help NASA determine the environments of other planets in our solar system.
“Further understanding of the moon’s atmosphere may also help us better understand our diverse solar system and its evolution,” John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, says in a news release.
The LADEE will be carried to outer space on the new Minotaur V rocket, a new Air Force rocket converted from an unused ballistic missile. The is also another expression of the Washington area’s growing space industry. While the probe is NASA’s, the launch will be operated by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences.
Assuming the weather cooperates, the rocket should be visible to the southeast as it heads up the East Coast and heads off for the moon.