NASA mission to probe moon’s atmosphere may solve Apollo-era mystery

An artist's depiction of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft.
(Dana Berry / NASA )

NASA has sent a spacecraft to study the moon’s surface and another to probe its “lumpy” gravity field, and now it’s sending a new explorer to taste its atmosphere.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission will seek to study the vanishingly thin lunar “air” before commercial space-goers in the coming years potentially start disrupting the near-pristine environment.

The $280-million mission is set for launch Sept. 6 at 11:27 p.m. EDT, LADEE scientists said Thursday during a news conference.

Yes, the moon does have an atmosphere, said program scientist Sarah Noble, “it’s just really, really thin.” This so-called exosphere is so sparse that its individual particles don’t even collide with one another.


Earth has a thin exosphere too, she said, but it doesn’t hug the surface, it hovers far above our thick atmosphere -- past even where the International Space Station orbits.

Planetary scientists are on the hunt for exoplanets with a dense, Earth-like atmosphere, but it’s far more common for planets’ surfaces to be hugged by a thin exosphere, Noble said. So studying the moon could teach researchers a lot about other rocky bodies, and even some in our own neighborhood such as Mercury, large asteroids and other planets’ moons.

The scientists are also hoping to determine the nature of the bright rays that Apollo astronauts saw stretching across the lunar sky. These “streamers” are thought to be caused tiny grains of dust kicked tens of kilometers into the air, but researchers haven’t been able to test that theory.

With this new mission, Noble said, the team can “go and solve this mystery that has been puzzling scientists for almost 50 years.”

The spacecraft will study the lunar environment using a dust analyzer and two different spectrometers. It will also be testing out some fancy new equipment: a system to beam data back with near-infrared light, not radio waves, said Don Cornwell, the mission manager for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration. This will allow scientists to send data at six times the rate of current advanced radio communication systems -- with half the weight in equipment and using 25% less power.

If the new system is successful, perhaps future missions such as the 2020 rover that NASA’s planning to send to Mars could use it to send back data as unheard of as 3-D video, said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science.