Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s Ames Research Center wins Popular Mechanics award for third time

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft being worked on at Ames Research Center. Photo Credit: NASA

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission has been recognized as a recipient of the 2014 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards, a recognition that has applauded innovation in science and technology annually for the past ten years. The spacecraft was “designed, developed, built, integrated, tested and controlled” by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“We’re proud of the LADEE mission’s accomplishments and this recognition,” said S. Pete Worden, director of the center, in a press release. “LADEE may have been the first Ames-built spacecraft, but after the Kepler mission’s win in 2009 and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission’s win in 2010, it’s the third Ames mission to be honored with this award.”

Popular Mechanics specifically noted LADEE’s modular design, which is made to save money and be customizable rather than requiring something be built from scratch for every new mission. The new system is called the Modular Common Spacecraft Bus (MCSB), and is the proposed bus for the 2020 Phobos And Deimos & Mars Environment (PADME) orbiter mission.

LADEE's construction, expanded view. Image Credit: NASA

LADEE’s construction, expanded view. Image Credit: NASA

“This mission put the innovative common bus design to the test and proved the spacecraft could perform well beyond our most conservative estimates,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames. “This same common bus can be used on future missions to explore other destinations, including voyages to orbit and land on the moon, low-Earth orbit, near-Earth objects and objects in deep space.”

For the LADEE, the bus structure was a carbon composite that weighed 547.2 pounds unfueled and 844.4 pounds fully fueled.

The award also acknowledged the spacecraft’s laser data transfer capability via the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) terminal, which “made history by downloading data at 622 megabits per second — more than six times faster than the quickest space-based radio signals,” according to the Popular Mechanics writeup.

Additionally, Popular Mechanics noted the benefits provided by LADEE for future Mars missions, as Martian moon Phobos will likely be a waypoint for manned expeditions to the planet and LADEE’s data will help develop the technology to land there.

LADEE is fitted with a payload fairing before launch. Photo Credit: NASA Ames

LADEE is fitted with a payload fairing before launch. Photo Credit: NASA Ames

LADEE was launched in September of 2013 aboard a U.S. Air Force Minotaur V from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. It was the first flight of a Minotaur V rocket, which was developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, as well as the first launch beyond Earth orbit from the Wallops facility.

About 23 minutes after launch, LADEE experienced a minor malfunction. The reaction wheels that controlled the spacecraft’s attitude did not turn themselves off as they were programmed to. Mission control ordered the wheels to be shut down remotely and the fault protections, which had prevented the automatic shutdown, were selectively re-enabled. After this, the mission continued as planned.

The purpose of the mission was to examine the moon’s very thin atmosphere, a feature common to many other bodies in the solar system and therefore useful for understanding more than simply Earth’s moon. LADEE gathered data using an Ultraviolet and Visible Light Spectrometer (UVS), a Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS), and the Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX).

The mission ended when the spacecraft was intentionally crashed to the moon’s surface on April 18 of this year. The 100 days it had spent orbiting the moon were sufficient for the mission’s goals.


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Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor whose primary work currently is writing technical white papers, contributing to SFI, and working on a speculative fiction novel that she hopes to have published soon. Rae wanted an opportunity to report on the various space-related events in and around Florida's Space Coast and approached SFI's founder about the possibility. Rae now covers an array of subjects for our growing website.

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