NASA launches robotic explorer to moon

By: A P

 NASA’s newest robotic explorer rocketed into space late Friday in an unprecedented moonshot from Virginia that dazzled sky watchers along the East Coast of the U.S.

But the LADEE spacecraft quickly ran into equipment trouble, and while NASA assured everyone early Saturday that the lunar probe was safe and on a perfect track for the moon, officials acknowledged the problem needs to be resolved in the next two to three weeks.

S. Peter Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, which developed the spacecraft, told reporters he’s confident everything will be working properly in the next few days.

LADEE’s reaction wheels were turned on to orient and stabilize the spacecraft, which was spinning too fast after it separated from the final rocket stage, Worden said. But the computer automatically shut the wheels down, apparently because of excess current. He speculated the wheels may have been running a little fast.

The LADEE spacecraft, which is charged with studying the lunar atmosphere and dust, soared aboard an unmanned Minotaur rocket a little before midnight.

“Godspeed on your journey to the moon, LADEE,” Launch Control said. Flight controllers applauded and exchanged high-fives following the successful launch. “We are headed to the moon!” NASA said in a tweet.

NASA urged sky watchers to share their launch pictures through the website Flickr, and the photos and sighting reports quickly poured in from New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New Jersey, Rhode Island, eastern Pennsylvania and Virginia, among other places.

Unlike the quick three-day Apollo flights to the moon, LADEE will need a full month to reach Earth’s closest neighbor. An Air Force Minotaur V rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., provided the ride from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

LADEE, which is the size of a small car, is expected to reach the moon on Oct. 6.

Scientists want to learn the composition of the moon’s ever-so-delicate atmosphere and how it might change over time. Another puzzle, dating back decades, is whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface.

The $280 million moon-orbiting mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon for LADEE.

NASA chose Wallops for LADEE because of the Minotaur V rocket, comprised of converted intercontinental ballistic missile motors belonging to the Air Force. A U.S.-Russian treaty limits the number of launch sites because of the missile parts.

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