Another Step for Mankind

ImageAlthough scientists at one time believed the contrary, we now know that a weak atmosphere surrounds the moon. Unfortunately, astronomers have been unable to collect data or understand the composition and characteristics of this atmosphere due to the location. This problem may soon be solved, however, with NASA’s recent Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer launch, known as LADEE. LADEE launched on the Minotaur V rocket, on September 6. Interestingly, this launch was the first to happen at NASA’s Virginia base, instead of Cape Canaveral. Now that LADEE is in the air, it will first orbit earth three times, which will take about a month. Once it reaches the right location, it will then begin to orbit the moon. The orbit will be anywhere from 20 to 60 kilometers from the surface, close enough to record information about the contents of the moon’s atmosphere. Studies will last about 100 days; once the operation finishes, LADEE will find its new home, crashed on the surface of the moon.

One of the major goals of this operation is to understand the contents of the moon’s atmosphere, as well as the effect moon missions have had on it. Unlike Earth’s atmosphere, the moon’s atmosphere is comprised of minute particles floating over the surface. It is best compared to the Earth’s exosphere, the furthest layer of our atmosphere. Knowing more about the moon’s atmosphere and how it differs from our own could help scientists hypothesize the characteristics of the atmospheres of other celestial bodies. LADEE will collect and analyze samples of dust, which will not only allow scientists to understand the components of the atmosphere, but also answer the mystery created by a glow in the horizon, seen by Apollo astronauts. As of now, scientists are unable to definitively explain the glow, but hypothesize that it is the effect of dust particles in the atmosphere. With data from LADEE, NASA scientists will be able to determine whether or not this hypothesis is correct.

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LADEE is also special because of the technology it holds. This operation will test whether or not lasers are feasible for communication as it is the first craft to use Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration, or LLCD. If this program works, lasers could replace radio waves for transmissions between spacecraft and Earth. As science advances, this information could become crucial, allowing scientists to not only communicate with future crafts but also advance satellite capability. With better satellites, technology for observation, downloading, and terrestrial communication would most likely advance at rapid rates. The program LADEE is testing increases speed to 622 mbps, and as NASA boasts, should be capable of downloading an HD movie from the moon in 9 minutes. To put this in perspective, Wi-Fi’s capacity is at maximum 300 mbps. This test could create the foundation of communication and satellite technology in the upcoming years.

There were a few problems with LADEE’s takeoff, however. Scientists uncovered a glitch inside the code for the craft’s spacecraft reaction wheels. Fortunately, this was discovered and fixed quickly in the launch; otherwise it could have easily ruined the mission. The reaction wheels stabilize the craft in flight, and unlike other devices, can do so without using rocket fuel, a precious commodity on a long flight. According to NASA Ames Research Center director Pete Worden, “The LADEE spacecraft is healthy and communicating with mission operators.” Ames Research Center is LADEE’s birthplace, and they control the mission. Hopefully the rest of the mission runs smoothly, giving scientists both crucial information on the moon’s atmosphere and insight into future communication possibilities.

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Categories: Science & Tech

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