Virginia has just joined an elite group of states that served as the launch site for a Lunar Mission.
It's a short list: Florida, California, and — as of Friday night - Virginia.
Virginia isn't exactly known for space launches, but with Friday's successful Minotaur rocket launch, this might change in the near future. Granted, it will probably never surpass Florida's Space Coast in facilities and sheer number of launches, and besides, Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral are much further south, and the closer to the equator your launch site is the better for you. Earth's relative speed is faster at the equator, giving your rocket an extra boost for free thus requiring less fuel and saving money in the end.
But it's not all black and white like that.
The Minotaur rocket is actually cleverly cobbled together from old intercontinental missile parts, rockets that were decommissioned after the end of the Cold War. And because of their history, some of those parts cannot be launched from Kennedy at all. So what to do with those perfectly good rocket engines? Launch them from somewhere else - like Wallops Island, off the coast of Virginia! Wallops had launched several Minotaur rockets before so an appropriate infrastructure was already in place; it just had to be modified to accommodate the larger version of the LADEE launch vehicle.
Enter LADEE — another one of those infamous NASA acronyms, which stands for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. Wait just a cotton-pickin'-minute, you might say — “Lunar Atmosphere”? Everyone knows that the Moon has no atmosphere, right? Isn't that why the astronauts of the Apollo missions wore all those bulky suits with big oxygen tanks in their giant backpacks?
Well, yes and no. The Moon does indeed have an atmosphere. It's just so thin that for all practical purposes it might as well not be there at all. But it exists nonetheless. And so far, nobody has studied this frail and tenuous gaseous envelope of our Moon.
And that's about to change. LADEE will fly a rather circuitous path to the Moon, due to its launch site and relatively small launch vehicle, but once it gets there it will go into an orbit that will vary between some 150 miles and 12 miles above the surface. It will scoop up dust particles and analyze them and get a better idea of just how dense the Moon's atmosphere really is.
Technically speaking it's actually a so-called exosphere, because the particles are so far apart they pretty much never collide, but yet there seems to be enough of it to help suspend dust particles above ground - the Apollo astronauts all reported a faint atmospheric glow above the lunar horizon. Many asteroids and moons of the solar system, and even the planet Mercury are suspected to have a very thin atmosphere, or exosphere,, and we know next to nothing about this phenomenon.
LADEE will arrive in its lunar orbit in October, and along with its science mission it will also test a new laser-based communication technique which allows for better and faster data transmission than old-fashioned radar. Many spacecraft engineers are eager to find out how to use LADEE's experiments for their own spacecraft communications.
Looks like ET might soon have another way to “call home.”
Learn more about LADEE at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/ladee/main/index.html
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org