NASA's lunar probe gets to work studying moon's atmosphere

Scientists hope to use data to learn more about other moons, asteroids and Mercury

The robotic probe that NASA launched in September has begun studying the moon's atmosphere.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, also known as LADEE, moved into orbit around the moon on Wednesday, according to NASA. The probe launched Sept. 6 from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.

Using three instruments to collect data about the chemical makeup of the lunar atmosphere and variations in its composition, the probe also will capture and analyze dust particles it finds in the moon's atmosphere.

Orbiting the moon's equator, LADEE is in a unique position to frequently move from lunar day to lunar night, enabling it to better collect data on the "changes and processes occurring within the moon's tenuous atmosphere," NASA noted.

The spacecraft, which is about the size of a small car, is orbiting the moon about every two hours, eight miles above the lunar surface.

LADEE is scheduled to spend 100 days collecting data on the moon's atmosphere, giving scientists information they hope will help them better understand the planet Mercury, asteroids and the moons orbiting other planets.

Studying the moon's atmosphere is LADEE's primary mission, but it already has completed another task. About a month after launch, the spacecraft began a test of a high-data-rate laser communication system.

Don Cornwell, Lunar Laser Communications Mission Manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said last month that the test exceeded their expectations. NASA engineers are encouraged that a laser communications system could be the building blocks of an outer space Internet.

NASA hopes to use similar systems to speed up future satellite communications, as well as deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.

Using laser communications instead of radio systems would enable robots, such as the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, and astronauts to send and receive far greater data loads from space, whether in orbit around Earth, on the moon or on a distant asteroid.

This article, NASA's lunar probe gets to work studying atmosphere, was originally published at

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

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