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LADEE moon probe blasts off, despite mechanical issue


Saturday, September 7, 2013, 11:21 AM -

NASA's newest robotic explorer rocketed into space late Friday in an unprecedented moonshot from Virginia that dazzled sky watchers along the East Coast of the U.S.

But the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, spacecraft quickly ran into equipment trouble, and while NASA assured everyone early Saturday that the lunar probe was safe and on a perfect track for the moon, officials acknowledged the problem needs to be resolved in the next two to three weeks.

S. Peter Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, which developed the spacecraft, told reporters he's confident everything will be working properly in the next few days.

LADEE's reaction wheels were turned on to orient and stabilize the spacecraft, which was spinning too fast after it separated from the final rocket stage, Worden said. But the computer automatically shut the wheels down, apparently because of excess current. He speculated the wheels may have been running a little fast.

Worden stressed there is no rush to "get these bugs ironed out.''

LADEE, which is the size of a small car, is expected to reach the moon on Oct. 6.

Scientists want to learn the composition of the moon's ever-so-delicate atmosphere and how it might change over time. Another puzzle, dating back decades, is whether dust actually levitates from the lunar surface:

Its Virginia launch was a change of venue for NASA, which normally launches moon missions from Cape Canaveral, Florida. But it provided a rare light show along the East Coast for those blessed with clear skies.

NASA urged sky watchers to share their launch pictures through the website Flickr, and the photos and sighting reports quickly poured in from New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New Jersey, Rhode Island, eastern Pennsylvania and Virginia, among other places.

LADEE is taking a roundabout path to the moon, making three huge laps around Earth before getting close enough to pop into lunar orbit.

Unlike the quick three-day Apollo flights to the moon, LADEE will need a full month to reach Earth's closest neighbour.

The $280 million moon-orbiting mission will last six months and end with a suicide plunge into the moon.

The Associated Press

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