NASA's New Moon Probe In Fine Shape On Lunar Trek

LADEE Above the Lunar Surface Artist's Concept
An artist's concept of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft seen orbiting near the surface of the moon. (Image credit: NASA Ames / Dana Berry)

NASA's newest lunar spaceraft is in good shape as it tackles a month-long trek to the moon after a launching from Virginia last week.

The space agency's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft has passed its initial checkout phase with flying colors, NASA officials said in an update Wednesday (Sept. 10). The spacecraft launched toward the moon on Friday (Sept. 6) from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va.

"LADEE is doing fine and its trajectory to the moon is good," NASA officials said in a statement. "The LADEE spacecraft is currently in an elliptical orbit around Earth, about 162,000 miles (260,000 kilometers) in altitude. Mission controllers are now performing an extended checkout phase including guidance, navigation and control characterization, reaction control system tests, and on-board controller tuning." [See Spectacular Photos of LADEE's Night Launch]

LADEE's checkup included tracking, acquisition and ranging by all ground stations, they added. Mission controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., also had the probe perform a so-called "momentum dump" manuever, which reduced the spacecraft's spin to a normal level. 

Shortly after launch, LADEE's reaction wheels, which are used to stabilize and orient the probe in space, experienced a technical glitch just after the probe's separation from its Minotaur V rocket, but controllers on the ground quickly solved the issue.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer will uncover details of the moon's thin atmosphere. See the full LADEE moon dust infographic here. (Image credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

LADEE (pronounced "laddie") reached highest point in its current elliptical orbit Tuesday (Sept. 10) at 12:30 p.m. EDT (1630 GMT). The spacecraft is now heading down to its closest Earth approach expected on Sept. 13 at 12:38 p.m. EDT (1638 GMT).

Once LADEE makes its close approach, mission controllers will fire the probe's engines, boosting it into a higher orbit. After two more of these burns catapulting the craft into ever-higher orbits, LADEE will perform its "lunar orbit insertion burn" on Oct. 6, NASA officials said.

"After that we are in lunar orbit," NASA officials wrote. "This LOI burn is one of the most critical phases of the mission, because without it working we do not get into lunar orbit."

The $280 million LADEE mission is tasked with probing the mysteries of lunar dust and the moon's very thin atmosphere from its low orbit around Earth's closest cosmic neighbor. LADEE is expected to perform about 100 days of science including hunting for the answer to a more than 40 year old moon dust mystery.

Apollo astronauts saw a strange glow on the moon's horizon before sunrise. Scientists think that it might have something to do with tiny dust particles lofted high into the moon's atmosphere. LADEE is designed to help them tease out the answer to that lunar riddle.

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Miriam Kramer
Staff Writer

Miriam Kramer joined as a Staff Writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also served as's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. Miriam is currently a space reporter with Axios, writing the Axios Space newsletter. You can follow Miriam on Twitter.