Crashing on the Moon
22 April 2014

This illustration is an artist’s rendition, showing NASA’s LADEE spacecraft in Moon orbit

Credit: NASA/Ames/Dana Berry

On 17 April 2014, ground controllers at NASA's Ames Research Center confirmed that NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the surface of the Moon, as planned.

LADEE lacked fuel to maintain lunar orbit or continue science operations and was deliberately crashed onto the lunar surface. The spacecraft's orbit naturally decayed, following the mission's final low-altitude exploration.

Engineers believe the LADEE spacecraft heated up several hundred degrees, and was destroyed, during impact, or even vaporizing, at the surface. Any remains might be buried in shallow craters.

"At the time of impact, LADEE was traveling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour – about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet," said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist.

In early April, LADEE was maneuvered, to lower its closest approach to the lunar surface. The new orbit brought LADEE to altitudes within two kilometers above the lunar surface. This has enabled scientists to collect unique data.

On 11 April, LADEE performed a final maneuver, to follow a trajectory that caused the spacecraft to impact the far side of the Moon, which is not in view of Earth or near any previous lunar mission landing sites. LADEE also passed the total eclipse of the Moon on 15 April 2014. This demonstrated the Sun-powered spacecraft was able to survive low temperatures and shortage of energy, as it traversed Earth's dark immense shadow.

Launched on 7 September 2013, from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, LADEE began orbiting the Moon 6 October 2013 and gathering science data 10 November 2013. The spacecraft entered its science orbit around the lunar equator, on 20 November 2013, and in March 2014, the LADEE mission was extended, due to the great success of its 100-day primary stage.

LADEE gathered detailed information about the structure and composition of the thin lunar atmosphere. In addition, scientists hope to use the data to address a long-standing question: Was lunar dust, electrically charged by sunlight, responsible for the pre-sunrise glow seen above the lunar horizon during some Apollo missions?

A comprehensive study of the characteristics of our nearest space companion will allow a better understanding of other solar system bodies, such as large asteroids, the planet Mercury, which shows a marked resemblance to the Moon, and the moons of the outer planets.

LADEE Mission Website

Aymen Mohamed Ibrahem
Senior Astronomy Specialist
News Center

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