New NASA Spacecraft to Probe Moon Dust
Future explorers of the Moon must deal with a variety of lunar environmental issues, including surface electrification of dust. Another factor is the ever-present, sharp, abrasive, glassy dust of the lunar soil.
Credit: NASA

NASA is drawing up plans to probe the secrets of moon dust using a small orbiter that will ride piggyback on another spacecraft?s rocket.

The $80-million LADEE spacecraft is slated to launch alongside a lunar gravity-mapping probe in 2011 on a 100-day mission to study the moon?s wisp-thin atmosphere and ever-present dust, the agency said Thursday.

A clear understanding of the moon?s atmosphere and its clingy dust will be vital for NASA as it moves forward with plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface aboard its Altair lander by 2020.

During the Apollo lunar landings between 1969 and 1972, NASA moonwalkers were coated in lunar dust during excursions and tracked it back inside their landers, where it gave off a smell similar to gunpowder. The gritty material can be abrasive, made of sharp, glassy grains, be electrostatically charged and may even be toxic to astronauts if too much is inhaled, researchers have said.

"Moondust was a real nuisance for Apollo astronauts," said NASA researcher Mian Abbas, whose team studies the interaction of lunar dust and solar wind at the National Space Science and Technology Center's Dusty Plasma Lab in Huntsville, Ala., in a statement. "It stuck to everything - spacesuits, equipment, instruments."

According to one NASA mission description, LADEE - short for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer - is expected to carry at least two instruments, a spectrometer for atmosphere studies and a dust detector aimed at the moon?s gritty regolith.

?These measurements will provide scientific insight into the lunar environment, and give our explorers a clearer understanding of what they'll be up against as they set up the first outpost and begin the process of settling the solar system," said Pete Worden, head of NASA?s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which will oversee the LADEE mission, in a statement.

The LADEE orbiter is expected to ride in the back seat of an unmanned Delta 2 rocket behind NASA?s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), a $375-million orbiter designed to parse out the mysteries of the moon?s gravitational field. The two spacecraft will separate only after they are en route to the moon, with LADEE expected to take about five months to enter orbit and check its systems.

LADEE and GRAIL will follow a flotilla of lunar probes, including Japan?s Kaguya orbiter and China?s Chang?e-1 spacecraft - both of which launched last year and are likely to their mission?s extended.

India is preparing to launch its lunar orbiter, the Chandrayaan-1, later this year with NASA?s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to follow later this year. A second NASA probe, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, will also launch with LRO and purposely crash two vehicles into the moon to search for hidden water ice.

"LADEE represents a low-cost approach to science missions, enabling faster science return and more frequent missions," Worden said.

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