Glitch resolved, NASA probe on its way to the moon

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Engineers have resolved a minor glitch with a new NASA robotic lunar probe, which blasted off Friday night for the first leg of a 30-day trip to the moon.

Shortly after the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, spacecraft separated from its Minotaur 5 launch vehicle, its positioning system shut down due to what appeared to be a high electrical current.

Engineers quickly determined there was no problem with the reaction wheels, which are needed to steer and stabilize the spacecraft. Rather, the glitch involved a fault protection system designed to safeguard the wheels.

"The limits that caused the powering off of the wheels soon after activation were disabled, and reaction wheel fault protection has been selectively re-enabled," NASA wrote in a statement posted on its website.

Engineers will assess how to manage the fault protection system, added project manager Butler Hine, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

LADEE blasted off aboard the Minotaur 5 rocket, which was making its debut flight, at 11:27 p.m. EDT/0327 GMT on Saturday from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

The rocket, made up of three decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile motors and two commercial boosters, deposited LADEE into a highly elliptical orbit stretching as far as 170,000 miles (273,588 km) from Earth. During its third pass around the planet, LADEE will be in position to fire its braking rocket and slip into lunar orbit.

A 30-day checkout of the probe's science instruments will follow. Engineers also will test a prototype two-way optical laser communications system that NASA is developing for use on future space probes.

LADEE's main mission is to analyze the thin shell of gases enveloping the lunar surface, a tenuous atmosphere known as an exosphere. It also will look for signs that the lunar dust rising off the surface.

Scientists believe the dust may be the cause of a strange glow on the lunar horizon spotted by the Apollo astronauts and NASA's 1960s-era Ranger robotic probes.

LADEE was the first deep-space probe to fly from the Wallops Island spaceport. On September 17, Orbital Sciences Corp. (NYSE: ORB) is scheduled to launch its Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo capsule on a trial run to the International Space Station for NASA.

The station, a project of 15 countries, flies about 250 miles (about 400 km) above Earth. (Reporting by Irene Klotz)

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