Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hey Ladee

Last Friday was the perfect night to witness a moon mission. Lucky for me, NASA thought so too, and thus hurled a golf cart-sized probe aboard an Air Force Minotaur V rocket out of Earth's atmosphere en route to our friendly neighborhood celestial body. More specifically, the LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) probe was launched from NASA's Wallop's Island flight facility at 11:27 pm September 6. It will slingshot around the Earth three times before reaching an elliptical orbit around our moon in about a month. My home base in DC is a four-hour drive from Wallop's Island, so my girlfriend and I left the city immediately after work to barely make it in time to see it with our own eyes (and capture some shaky video.)

Officially, NASA would like you to pronounce it's LADEE probe as the Scotsman salutation "laddie", but for this blog post, I'd prefer you think of a straining Jerry Lewis "Hey laaady!" impression. Not for any particular reason outside my selfish, nerdy sense of humor.

LADEE is the first test of NASA's new modular spacecraft, which in the future will be more easily upgrade-able and efficient for multi-use applications. It also is armed with a very cool new laser communication system which could revolutionize data relay. These lasers will replace traditional radio systems, greatly improving bandwidth and efficiency.

For the 100 days of lunar orbit before it's lunar crash landing, LADEE's main mission will be to orbit the moon examining it's atmosphere. From data it gathers, NASA hopes to shed light on a mystery astronauts encountered nearly 50 years ago. Moonwalkers aboard Apollo 17 reported a glow on the moon's horizon, consistent with a dust layer which should not be able to be supported within the almost vacant atmosphere. Mass and light spectrometers in conjunction with a dust collector will send back clues to this puzzle, which we can use to better understand other celestial bodies as well.

sketches of glowing lunar horizon by Apollo 17 crew

Traffic was brutal approaching the visitor's area, so we were extremely lucky to snag the second-to-last police sanctioned spot along the shoulder of a bridge directly across some marshlands from the LADEE launch site. We had about 10 minutes to spare to get a comfortable seat on our car and our cameras ready. At 11:27, right on time, the Minotaur rocket lit up the clear dark night and propelled upward.

The marsh illuminated, fire and smoke surged, and the crowd roared. Thirty seconds later, the loud growl of 1,606 kilonewtons worth of burning, solid propellant rocket fuel thrust made it to us, and the crowd went crazy. With the rocket halfway out of sight, the first stage separation exploded as planned, glowing as it fell away from the rest of the spacecraft. Another thirty seconds later and the roar had quieted, but the second stage separation was still barely visible in the distance. After two exhilarating minutes, LADEE and its missile blended in with the rest of the bright dots in the sky. Cars began crowding the bridge to drive home, but I made sure to stick around and befriend our neighbors with better photography skills.

photo courtesy Aaron Oberlander at www.flikr.com/oberlander

Nearing midnight, we intelligently decided to avoid the developing traffic jam by heading to the closest bar. There, we talked and laughed with a group of Bostonians who'd taken time off work and traveled down to watch man shoot the moon, but had came prepared with tinfoil hats in case the moon men were quick to respond. We also talked and laughed with locals who, despite the live feed on TV just behind the dancefloor, were contently ignorant of the weight of the science happening just outside their back window. They did alert us to Oysterfest next month, though. So between that and any of NASA's future flight plans, I can't wait to come back.

Dannette, Melinda, Amy, and Meself

Sounds delicious

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