UPDATE: For those in dark locations with a great view of the horizon, it was a sight to see as the LADEE spacecraft lifted off from Wallops Island Friday night. Below are some links to photos from social media posts, including the first photo from Michael Overacker, an avid astronomer with the Star City Astronomy Network. He took the photo from Cahas Mountain Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The probe launched on a U.S. Air Force Minotaur V rocket, an excess ballistic missile converted into a space launch vehicle and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is designed to study the Moon's thin exosphere and the lunar dust environment. An “exosphere” is an atmosphere that is so thin that molecules don’t collide with each other.

Studying the Moon’s atmosphere will help scientists understand other planetary bodies with similar attributes, like Mercury and some of Jupiter’s bigger moons. The orbiter will determine the density, composition and variability of the Moon's exosphere to help us understand where the species in the exosphere come from and the role of the solar wind, lunar surface and interior as sources.

The LADEE mission has many firsts.

  • First flight of the Minotaur V rocket
  • Testing of a high-data-rate laser communication system
  • First lunar launch from Wallops.

The mission will also test several new technologies, including a modular spacecraft bus that may reduce the cost of future deep space missions and demonstrate two-way high rate laser communication for the first time from the Moon.

For more information about the LADEE mission and launch, open the Fact Sheet (.pdf)