News & Politics

Don’t Forget to Watch Tonight’s Rocket Launch

A lunar probe is taking off tonight from Wallops Island, Virginia, and it should be plenty visible throughout the area.

Engineers at NASA's Wallops Island, Virginia facility begin preparing the Minotaur V rocket for launch. Photograph by Patrick Black via NASA Wallops.

If you’re looking for something to do at 11:27 tonight, consider going outside and looking toward the southeast. Wait about 50 seconds, and you should be able to spot a rocket soaring away from the earth carrying NASA’s newest lunar probe.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is taking off from NASA’s launch facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Its planned flight trajectory will take it in an arc over the East Coast, providing stargazers throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast with a view of the rocket carrying the car-sized surveillance craft.

The launch is also a big moment for Northern Virginia’s growing space exploration industry. While the probe is NASA’s and the Minotaur V rocket comes by way of a converted Air Force ballistic missile, the launch procedure itself will be conducted by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences.

Once in space, it will take the LADEE about a month to reach the moon. It will then spend another month deploying and calibrating its equipment before finally entering a continuous lunar orbit for 100 days. The mission’s goal is to determine if the moon’s microscopically thin atmosphere contains any surface dust. NASA says this will help its scientists better understand the environments of other large, presumably barren rocks floating through our solar system, such as Mercury, asteroids, and the moons of other planets.

The rocket should be visible to the southeast about 50 seconds after its launch throughout the DC area. Below is what the intended trajectory should look like off the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The rocket should be visible from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 48 seconds after it launches. Image via Orbital Sciences.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.