The last moon mission on NASA's current schedule - a small, unmanned spacecraft that will study moon dust and the lunar atmosphere - is slated to launch on Friday from Wallops Island, Virginia, elating scientists who study the moon but highlighting political questions about what NASA should do next.
The Smart Car-size spacecraft, which NASA calls the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, will take 30 days to get into orbit around the moon, spend the next 30 days checking its equipment and proceed with scientific work for 100 days, searching for water molecules in the atmosphere and gathering data about the curious substance known as lunar dust. Then the probe, which goes by the acronym LADEE, will take a death plunge into the rocky surface of the subject it is studying.
The results of the scientific program could be helpful in preparing for future manned missions to the moon. Although NASA currently does not have such plans, some members of Congress have called on the space agency to return to the moon rather than pursuing its current space objectives.
Although there is wide agreement that NASA should ultimately aim for a manned flight to Mars, that goal is far off. But NASA has continued sending unmanned spacecraft to the moon; the coming mission will be the third to go there in five years. Although scientists are excited about what the experiment may yield, they are also concerned about the absence of future moon voyages on NASA's schedule.
Even if NASA sits on the sidelines, traffic to the moon will be busy. China announced this past week that it would land its first exploratory rover on the moon by the end of the year. India, Japan, Russia and the European Space Agency also have unmanned missions in the works. And Google is sponsoring a competition called the Lunar X Prize, offering up to $US20 million to the first company that can send a robotic spacecraft to the moon by 2015 and make it perform certain tasks.
The LADEE spacecraft will search for water in the very thin lunar atmosphere, which is estimated to be 1/100,000th the density of Earth's, perhaps similar to Mercury's.
New York Times
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