An unmanned rocket blasted off from Earth Friday night on a mission to explore our celestial "backyard."
NASA's LADEE (pronounced like "laddie") will loop around the moon to study its ever-so-delicate atmosphere and attempt to solve the puzzle of whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface.
The 6 1/2-foot tall orbiter was launched on a former U.S. Air Force intercontinetal ballistic missile at 8:27 p.m. PT Friday from Virginia's Eastern Shore. It's NASA's last planned lunar orbiter.
"Yes, weapons of mass destruction have been put to peaceful and scientific purposes," said UCLA professor Dr. David Page, at panelist at a launch party in Pasadena, Calif.
Studying the nearby moon’s atmosphere will give scientists a peek into how other planetary bodies that aren’t so close developed, according to NASA.
Because it hasn’t changed much since its initial development (unlike Earth, Mars and Venus), the moon is like a time machine when it comes to studying planetary evolution.
The moon's surface boundary exosphere -- a very thin atmosphere -- may be the most common type of atmosphere in our solar system.
Getting to know what blankets the moon will let scientists apply those discoveries to other celestial bodies – among them, Mercury, larger asteroids and many moons orbiting the gas giants.
LADEE will also test whether laser communication beyond Earth is possible. If so, it will allow for 3D high-definition video transmissions into deep space.
The $280 million mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon for LADEE (or the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer), which is about the size of a small car and managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Unlike the quick three-day Apollo flights to the moon, LADEE will take a full month to get there. An Air Force Minotaur rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., is providing the ride from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
It's the first moonshot from Virginia. All but one of NASA's approximately 40 moon missions, including the manned Apollo flights of the late 1960s and early 1970s, originated from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The most recent were the twin Grail spacecraft launched two years ago. The lone exception, Clementine, a military-NASA venture, rocketed away from Southern California in 1994.