A $6 million instrument designed and built by LASP to study the behavior of lunar dust will be riding on a NASA mission to the moon now slated for launch on Friday, Sept. 6, from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The mission, known as the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, will orbit the moon to better understand its tenuous atmosphere and whether dust particles are being lofted high off its surface. The $280 million LADEE mission, designed, developed, integrated and tested at NASA’s AMES Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., will take about a month to reach the moon and another month to enter the proper elliptical orbit and to commission the instruments. A 100-day science effort will follow.
“We are ready and excited for launch,” said CU-Boulder physics Professor Mihaly Horanyi of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, principal investigator for the Lunar Dust Experiment, or LDEX. “We think our instrument can help answer some important questions related to the presence and transport of dust in the lunar atmosphere.”
About the size of a small toaster oven, the LDEX instrument will be able to chart the existence, size and individual velocities of tiny dust particles as small as 0.6 microns in diameter. For comparison, a standard sheet of paper is about 100 microns thick. A collision between a dust particle and a hemisphere-shaped target on LDEX generates a unique electrical signal inside the instrument to allow scientists to detect individual particles, said Horanyi.
Knowing more about the behavior of lunar dust could be of use for future human expeditions to the moon, including potential colonization efforts. Learning more about lunar dust also might help scientists better understand dust on other moons in the solar system — like Phobos and Deimos that orbit Mars – that have been suggested by some as possible initial landing posts for crewed missions headed to the Red Planet.
When the LADEE spacecraft is inserted into an elliptical orbit, its closest approach will be less than 20 miles from the lunar surface. “The closer we can get to the surface the better,” he said.