Spaceflight Insider

LADEE makes impact on the lunar surface

Depiction of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory as it approaches lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry

On April 17th, between 9:30pm and 10:22pm PDT, NASA’s Lunar Atmospheric and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) intentionally crashed into the lunar surface after completing its scientific mission to study the Moon in greater depth. The vending machine sized spacecraft was developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center and launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility back in September 2013. Originally slated for a 100 day mission, LADEE embarked on its lunar voyage in October, with the first scientific data collected in November.

“LADEE was a mission of firsts, achieving yet another first by successfully flying more than 100 orbits at extremely low altitudes,” said Joan Salute, LADEE program executive, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Although a risky decision, we’re already seeing evidence that the risk was worth taking,” stated a NASA release on LADEE’s impact.

An artist's concept of LADEE orbiting near the lunar surface.  Image Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry

An artist’s concept of LADEE orbiting near the lunar surface. Image Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry

This mission is the first of its kind to study the lunar surface and atmosphere in detail. Earlier this month, after successfully completing its mission, LADEE earned the title of lowest orbiting spacecraft as it orbited the lunar surface a mere mile (two kilometers) above the surface – a distance lower than most commercial airplanes are allowed to fly. LADEE was the first spacecraft to fly over 100 orbits that close to the lunar surface and collected some of the best data recorded so far of lunar dust kicked up from surface impacts.

Back on April 11th, LADEE completed her final maneuvers in order to be in the correct position for an impact on the far side of the Moon, avoiding the historical sites. The spacecraft proved she was capable of surviving the frigid temperatures of outer space, by surviving during the recent lunar eclipse.

LADEE also housed NASA’s first dedicated two way communication system employing laser as opposed to radio waves. The Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) is significant for its use of a laser beam to transfer data from the Earth to the Moon – a distance of over 239,000 miles – at a rate of 622 Mbps. Also the LLCD holds the record for error-free data upload from the ground station in New Mexico to Laser Communications Space terminal on LADEE at a rate of 20 Mbps!

The spacecraft collected data on the composition and structure of the thin lunar atmosphere in hopes to finally determine the source of the pre-sunrise glow seen above the lunar horizon by several Apollo astronauts. An in-depth understanding of our Moon will help shed light on other bodies in our solar system such as Mercury, large asteroids and even other planetary moons.

Artist rendition of the LLCD on board LADEE. Image Credit: NASA

Artist rendition of the LLCD on board LADEE. Image Credit: NASA

NASA encouraged the public to participate in LADEE’s untimely demise with a contest called “Take the Plunge”. Participants were able to guess the date and time LADEE would make impact on the lunar surface and the winners will receive a digital certificate from NASA.

Over the next few months, researchers will be sorting through the data collected and will be able to determine the exact time, date and location of impact. Most of the spacecraft is predicted to have vaporized during impact, but if there are any remains of LADEE, they will most likely be in shallow craters on the lunar surface.

“At the time of impact, LADEE was traveling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour – about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet,” said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at Ames. “There’s nothing gentle about impact at these speeds – it’s just a question of whether LADEE made a localized craterlet on a hillside or scattered debris across a flat area. It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created.”

LADEE was a collaborative effort between several NASA facilities including Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Wallops Flight Facility, Marshall Space Flight Center, and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.


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