NASA launches rocket to probe mysterious lunar dust

Robot spacecraft set off from Virginia, giving East Coast residents a chance of rare light show

The rocket will begin its science mission in lunar orbit about 60 days after launch.

NASA’s latest mission to the moon began without a hitch late Friday, with a small robotic spacecraft set on its way to investigate mysterious lunar dust that Apollo astronauts first encountered decades ago.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft, or LADEE, was launched shortly before midnight from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.

“Godspeed on your journey to the moon, LADEE,” Launch control said as the vessel blasted off. It was a change of venue for NASA, which normally launches moon missions from Cape Canaveral, Fla. But it provided a rare light show along the East Coast for those blessed with clear skies for the evening.

The mission comes more than 40 years after the last Apollo astronauts left the moon, and will investigate one of their most bizarre discoveries.

Crews reported seeing an odd glow on the lunar horizon just before sunrise. The phenomenon, which Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan sketched in a notebook, was unexpected because the airless moon lacked atmosphere for reflecting sunlight.

Scientists suspected that dust from the lunar surface was being electrically charged and somehow lofted off the ground. LADEE will orbit the moon and gather data to test the theory.

Apollo astronauts have described the dust as "like talcum powder" but strangely abrasive. It smelled "like spent gunpowder" and clung to their boots, gloves and equipment, they said.

In addition to studying the lunar dust, LADEE will probe the slight envelope of gases that surrounds the moon, a veneer so thin it stretches the meaning of the word "atmosphere."

Scientists refer to such environments as exospheres and hope that understanding the moon's gaseous shell will shed light on similar pockets around Mercury, asteroids and other airless bodies.

The spacecraft was designed and built at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Ca.

The $280 million mission also includes an experimental laser optical communications system that NASA hopes to incorporate into future planetary probes, including a Mars rover scheduled for launch in 2020.

The spacecraft is scheduled to drop into a low lunar orbit to begin its science mission about 60 days after launch.

Just getting to the moon will take LADEE 30 days -- 10 times longer than the Apollo missions -- due to its relatively low-powered engine.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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