NASA team fixes lunar orbiter glitch

LADEE spacecraft now working well as it heads to the moon for dual missions (see video below)

NASA engineers have fixed a problem with the new lunar orbiter and the spacecraft is continuing its month-long journey to the moon.

The space agency reported over the weekend that the reaction wheels on its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) were successfully brought back on-line and the spacecraft operating well.

The problem with the wheels, which are used to position and stabilize the spacecraft, began shortly after launch late Friday night.

During technical checkouts, the spacecraft commanded itself to shut down its reaction wheels.

Engineers immediately began working on the problem and found it was caused by the fault protection limits set up prior to launch to safeguard the reaction wheels. The limits were disabled and reaction wheels brought back online.

"The initial checkout flight procedure is progressing," said S. Pete Worden, center director at NASA's Ames Research Center, in a statement. "The LADEE spacecraft is healthy and communicating with mission operators."

NASA's LADEE lifted off at 11:27 p.m. ET Friday atop a U.S. Air Force Minotaur V rocket, which started out as a ballistic missile but was converted into a space launch vehicle. It was the first launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.

The craft is expected to reach the moon in about 30 days. It will then enter the lunar orbit and begin its work.

The orbiting observatory is expected to study the moon's atmosphere, providing data to help scientists better understand Mercury, asteroids and moons orbiting other planets.

Soon after entering the moon's orbit, the spacecraft is also scheduled to begin a limited test of a high-data-rate laser communication system. If that system works as planned, similar systems are expected to be used to speed up future satellite communications, as well as deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.

Laser communications would enable robots -- similar to the Mars rover Curiosity -- as well as astronauts to send and receive far greater data loads, whether they're in orbit around Earth, on the moon or on a distant asteroid.

NASA's lunar orbiter blasts off atop a Minotaur V rocket from Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. (Video: NASA TV)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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