An unmanned Minotaur 5 rocket blasted off from the Virginia coast yesterday to launch a small NASA science satellite on its lunar trajectory according to officials, Reuters reports.
The spacecraft known as LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer), has been designed to look for dust rising from the lunar surface, a phenomenon, Apollo astronauts had reported decades ago.
According to project scientist Richard Elphic, who spoke during a launch broadcast on NASA TV, for the first time in 40 years, the space agency had the opportunity to address that mystery.
From an orbit as low as about 31 miles (50 km) above the lunar surface, LADEE would also probe the thin pocket of gases surrounding the moon, the tenuous atmosphere, containing argon, helium, sodium, potassium and other elements, that might hold clues about how water came to be trapped inside craters on the moon's frozen poles.
Elphic said though it was taught in grade school and probably junior high that the moon had no atmosphere, it did have an atmosphere, but it was completely different from the earth's own atmosphere. It was very tenuous, he added.
LADEE's 30-day trip to the moon started with the 11:27 pm EDT/0327 GMT Saturday liftoff of a five-stage Minotaur rocket on its debut flight. While the first three stages were decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile motors, the last two stages were commercial motors manufactured by Alliant Techsystems Inc.
According to scientists, the mysterious moondust was tied to the moon's atmosphere and its interactions with the surface environment, but they had not been able to study the phenomenon thoroughly in the nearly 50 years since the Surveyor 7 mission, CNET reports.
The moon's boundary surface exosphere, as it is known, remains undisturbed due to few probe landings of late. The portion of atmosphere -- which the earth has, but which would not be reached beyond the orbit of the International Space Station -- also happened to be the most common type of atmosphere in our solar system, according to Miriam Kramer of space.com.
It exists around Mercury, as also other large moons and asteroids, making the earth's moon ripe for types of data collection that could open up new understandings into other planetary bodies and their atmospheres.
The LADEE launch comes as the Virginia-based Orbital's first rocket launch carrying a payload destined for a spot beyond a low-earth orbit.