NASA successfully launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft aboard a Minotaur V from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia at 11:27 PM EST on September 6, 2013.
LADEE is a low cost lunar exploration mission managed by NASA Ames Research Center. The objective of the mission is to orbit around the Moon’s equator and study the lunar exosphere and particulate matter. The total cost of the LADEE mission is approximately $280 million which makes this mission low cost in stark contrast to other interplanetary missions which typically cost over $1 billion.
The LADEE spacecraft was lofted quickly into the heavens by an 80 foot tall Minotaur V launch vehicle designed by Orbital Sciences Corp. The Minotaur V program is managed by the United States Air Force. The Minotaur V is a five stage solid rocket motor fueled launch vehicle. The Minotaur V was designed as a low cost launch vehicle for U.S. government sponsored payloads destined for high energy trajectories including translunar trajectories and Geosynchronous Transfer Orbits (GTO). Like on the Minotaur IV, the Minotaur V’s first three stages are former Peacekeeper ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) solid rocket motors. This hardware was made available with the decommissioning of the Peacekeeper missiles in 2005 and allows the vehicle cost to be kept low since this hardware is already designed and built. The fourth stage of the vehicle is a STAR 48BV solid motor, while the fifth stage is a STAR 37FM solid motor. Both of these motors are manufactured by ATK and variants have been used on the Space Shuttle and Delta launch vehicles. While this was the maiden flight for a Minotaur V, most of the hardware on the vehicle is flight-proven. The Minotaur V shares avionics, structures and fairings with the Minotaur IV.
Friday evening’s flight adds to the 100% mission success history of the Minotaur launch vehicle family bringing the total number of launches performed to 24.
After leaving Earth orbit in approximately 24 days, LADEE will arrive in lunar orbit from the moon’s leading edge and the travel behind the moon, then re-appear to Earth’s view and execute a Lunar Orbit Insertion burn. For the next 24 hours for lunar orbit insertion, LADEE will remain in a elliptical retrograde equatorial orbit. Through a series of maneuvers, the elliptical orbit will be reduced to a more circular orbit at an altitude of 156 miles. After this orbit is stabilized, the spacecraft will maneuver to an orbit of 20-60 miles in altitude above the surface of the moon for the next 40-60 days to commission the spacecraft which includes systems checkout and configuration of the science payload. After this is complete, the team will conduct the science phase of the mission which will last 100 days. At the completion of the science mission, the spacecraft will be decommissioned and directed to impact the lunar surface.
LADEE is carrying three science instruments and one technology demonstrator. The first of these scientific instruments is the Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer which will determine the composition of the lunar atmosphere by analyzing light signatures from particles. The second instrument is a Neutral Mass Spectrometer responsible for measuring variations in the lunar atmosphere over time and altitude. The last instrument is a Lunar Dust Experiment designed to capture and analyze samples of lunar dust. The technology demonstrator package will test the feasibility of using lasers instead of radio frequency communications for broadband data link speeds to Earth.
The spacecraft was built around a spacecraft bus built using the new Modular Common Spacecraft Bus architecture. This design allows for easier and cheaper manufacturing and assembly processes when building a new spacecraft. The Modular Common Spacecraft Bus is built from lightweight carbon composite allowing the spacecraft to have a total weight of only 844.4 pounds. LADEE’s attitude control system is comprised of a sun sensor, two star trackers, reaction control wheels and an inertial measurement unit. For orbital maneuvering, LADEE is also equipped with bi-propellant fueled thrusters. LADEE does not require a specific orientation to capture solar energy as the entire spacecraft is covered in solar panels.
The next mission for NASA will be the Orbital Sciences Demonstration Flight from Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia on Sept. 17. This mission will mark the second flight of the liquid fueled Antares launch vehicle and the first flight of the Cygnus cargo vehicle as a part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Cygnus is a cargo resupply vehicle for the International Space Station aimed to compete with SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. If all goes well during the flight in September, the first operational flight of Cygnus will be in Dec. 2013.