10:45 AM | Rocket launch tonight at NASA Wallops Island Facility should be visible in the Mid-Atlantic region; 11:27 PM launch sends NASA back to the moon

LADEE This image shows the Minotaur V rocket that will carry NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) on a pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Va. Credit: NASA EDGE

Discussion

There will be a rocket launch tonight at NASA’s Wallops Island Virginia facility and it should be visible throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and much of the east coast. The launch time is set for 11:27 PM and the mission is to explore the very thin lunar atmosphere and moon dust. The spacecraft poised to liftoff atop the brand-new 5-stage Minotaur V rocket is nicknamed LADEE – short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer – and it will be the first spacecraft to be launched into outer space from Wallops Island as it will fly to the moon by way of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The unmanned Minotaur V rocket consists of converted intercontinental ballistic missile motors. A peace treaty between the United States and Russia specifies the acceptable launch sites for those missile parts; Wallops is on that short list.

The mission will investigate the fragile atmosphere of the moon and study how moon dust behaves above the lunar surface. Apollo astronauts first spotted a strange lunar glow on the moon's horizon during NASA's lunar landing missions in the 1960s and 1970s, but scientists still do not understand what causes the strange phenomenon. The moon's atmosphere is much thinner than Earth's - perhaps about 1/100,000th the density of that on Earth. Because the lunar atmosphere is so thin, temperatures reach 273 degrees Fahrenheit (134 degrees Celsius) on the sunny side of the moon, but the temperature can get as cold as minus 243 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 153 degrees Celsius) on the far side of the moon. The moon's atmosphere, referred to as "exosphere", is so thin that its individual molecules don't interact with each other. The Earth has an exosphere too, though it is located hundreds of miles up, higher than the orbit of the International Space Station. On the moon, this exosphere is extremely close to the surface, making it a good target to study in order to learn how such atmospheres behave over time. Similar exospheres have been spotted on Mercury, the icy moons of planets in the outer solar systems, and even on some asteroids.

The LADEE spacecraft is about the size of a small car and weighs about 844 pounds (383 kilograms). Once it reaches the moon, which should take a couple of months, the probe is expected to spend about 100 days studying the lunar environment before running out of fuel and crashing into the moon's surface.

Weather conditions look to be very favorable for this evening with clear skies expected up and down the east coast. Look low in the horizon shortly after launch in the following directions: southeast if in the DC metro region, south if in the Philly and NYC metro regions. The initial flight path of LADEE will be to the east over the Atlantic Ocean, where it will drop its first three (ICBM) stages. A live broadcast of the launch will air on NASA TV at http://www.nasa.gov/ntv

NASA

This map shows the maximum elevation in degrees above the local horizon the Minotaur rocket will reach across the east coast on Sept.6, 2013. Ten degrees is equal to about the width of your fist at arm’s length. Credit: Orbital Sciences