CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A low cost NASA spacecraft designed to study the moon's thin atmosphere darted into a midnight sky over Virginia on Friday to begin a science gathering mission in lunar orbit.
NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft is a $280 million mission to help scientists learn more about the moon's atmosphere and the conditions near and on the lunar surface.
One question the space agency would like to know is if lunar dust is being kicked up into the very thin lunar exosphere.
The LADEE mission will be one of the first by the space agency to launch and operate a low cost exploration mission.
"(LADEE) is really designed to try to lower the cost and speed up the ability to put together a spacecraft," Dr. Pete Worden, Director of NASA Ames Research Facility, explained on Thursday. " We are very, very excited about (LADEE) and we're looking forward to a great mission."
Dr. Worden and Ames added they are serious about performing "a number of low cost, rapidly producible space missions" over the next decade.
Ames will manage the spacecraft's entire six month mission.
A brief flash of daylight heralded the maiden launch of Orbital Sciences Corp. Minotaur 5 rocket as it lept into the black sky late Friday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at 11:27 p.m. EDT.
The eighty-foot tall Minotaur V is made up of several former U.S. Air Force Peacekeeper ICBM stages each supporting a solid fueled motor, with LADEE inside a protective shield high a top.
As the white rocket launched out over the north Atlantic waters, the first stage burned for several minutes before separating.
In New York City's Times Square, crowds stood still as NASA TV's broadcast of the launch appeared live on the massive Toshiba Vision screen just below where the New Year's Eve mirrored glass ball drops.
Twenty-three minutes after lift-off, LADEE then separated from the rocket's upper stage to begin it's slow cruise phase toward lunar orbit.
It will take LADEE thirty days to reach the moon followed by another month of tests by flight controllers to check out the craft prior to starting it's three month science gathering mission.
The 844-pound spacecraft will operate in a nearly circular science orbit of between 12 to 37 miles above the moon.
LADEE will use four main science instruments to determine the make up of the very thin atmosphere which surrounds the moon; and to analyze the lunar dust to determine if it contains electronically charged particles.
NASA hopes to learn if the lunar soil is being charged by solar ultraviolet light -- a question first asked by the first men to walk on the moon forty-four years ago as they watched a glow illuminate the lunar horizon prior to sunrise.
As the spacecraft's science mission ends, controllers will gradually lower LADEE's orbit until it impacts an unknown region on the lunar surface in March.
(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace, science & technology. Follow his updates via Twitter @AbsolutSpaceGuy.)