For 45 years, NASA has been stumped by the moon's glowing dust. With the launch of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft Friday, scientists are hoping to learn more about lunar dust and the moon's thin atmosphere.
A $280 million endeavor, the LADEE robotic research mission aims to solve a quandary from 1968's Surveyor 7 mission, when astronauts saw a strange glow on the moon's horizon before sunrise. Four years later, Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan also caught a glimpse of mysterious lunar "streamers" that were reminiscent of the aurora borealis.
The moon's dust has been described as "nasty stuff," "little shards of glass," and "evil." After reaching the moon's orbit in about 30 days, LADEE will stay there for three more months, retrieving and analyzing samples from the lunar atmosphere. The data will be beamed back to Earth before the craft self-destructs, crashing into the moon's surface.
"Things have been relatively quiet around the moon in terms of landings in the last few decades, but it's not going to stay that way for long," LADEE program scientist Sarah Noble told Space.com. "There are actually a number of countries and a number of private companies that are planning landings to the moon in the upcoming years, so now is actually an ideal time to go and take a look at it while it's still in its pristine, natural state."
Timed to LADEE's launch, NASA on Friday joined Instagram to share both new and historic images and videos. The account has only posted two photos so far (both of the moon), but NASA plans to use it to share real-time photos from the launch complex before and during Friday's liftoff at 11:27 p.m. EDT.
[Images: NASA, Instagram]