NASA Launches Robotic Explorer to Moon from Va.

Equipment Trouble Developed Shortly After Launch

By Marcia Dunn
|  Saturday, Sep 7, 2013  |  Updated 9:24 AM EDT
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Moon Mission From Va. Safe After Equipment Trouble

AP

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory launches aboard the Minotaur V rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013 in Virginia. LADEE is a robotic mission that will orbit the moon where it will provide unprecedented information about the environment around the moon and give scientists a better understanding of other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond. Photo Credit: (NASA/Carla Cioffi)

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NASA's newest robotic explorer is on its way to the moon, despite some trouble shortly after its launch.

An unmanned rocket blasted off from Virginia's Eastern Shore late Friday night, carrying the LADEE spacecraft.

But the LADEE spacecraft quickly ran into equipment trouble, and while NASA assured everyone early Saturday that the lunar probe was safe and on a perfect track for the moon, officials acknowledged the problem needs to be resolved in the next two to three weeks.

S. Peter Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, which developed the spacecraft, told reporters he's confident everything will be working properly in the next few days.

LADEE's reaction wheels were turned on to orient and stabilize the spacecraft, which was spinning too fast after it separated from the final rocket stage, Worden said. But the computer automatically shut the wheels down, apparently because of excess current. He speculated the wheels may have been running a little fast.

Worden stressed there is no rush to "get these bugs ironed out.''

Virginia was a change of venue for NASA, which typically launches its moon missions from Cape Canaveral, Fla. And the launch provided a rare light show along the East Coast for those blessed with clear skies; some people reported seeing the launch from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.

NASA expected the launch to be visible, weather permitting, as far south as South Carolina, as far north as Maine and as far west as Pittsburgh.

Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a statement Saturday congratulating the agency on the launch. "Tonight the nation witnessed a tremendous event at Wallops Island," he said.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, should reach the moon on Oct. 6. It will orbit Earth's closest neighbor for a few months, analyzing the ever-so-delicate atmosphere and lunar dust. The six-month mission costs $280 million.

LADEE is taking a roundabout path to the moon, making three huge laps around Earth before getting close enough to pop into lunar orbit.

Unlike the quick three-day Apollo flights to the moon, LADEE will need a full month to reach Earth's closest neighbor. An Air Force Minotaur V rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., provided the ride from the Wallops Flight Facility.

LADEE, which is the size of a small car, is expected to reach the moon on Oct. 6.

Scientists want to learn the composition of the moon's ever-so-delicate atmosphere and how it might change over time. Another puzzle, dating back decades, is whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface.

 

The 844-pound spacecraft has three science instruments as well as laser communication test equipment that could revolutionize data relay. NASA hopes to eventually replace its traditional radio systems with laser communications, which would mean faster bandwidth using significantly less power and smaller devices.

"There's no question that as we send humans farther out into the solar system, certainly to Mars,'' that laser communications will be needed to send high-definition and 3-D video, said NASA's science mission chief, John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.

It was a momentous night for Wallops, which was making its first deep-space liftoff. All of its previous launches were confined to Earth orbit.

"It was just a beautiful evening,'' Grunsfeld said.

NASA chose Wallops for LADEE because of the Minotaur V rocket, comprised of converted intercontinental ballistic missile motors belonging to the Air Force. A U.S.-Russian treaty limits the number of launch sites because of the missile parts.

All but one of NASA's previous moon missions since 1959, including the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s, originated from Cape Canaveral. The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched almost exactly two years ago. The military-NASA Clementine rocketed away from Southern California in 1994.

Wallops will be back in the spotlight in less than two weeks. The Virginia-based Orbital Sciences will make its first delivery to the International Space Station, using its own Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule. That commercial launch is scheduled for Sept. 17.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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